The Sydney Atlantean Bus Dispute, 1970-71

John Dean

20 December 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Sydney-basedAtlantean bus dispute.The conflict essentially began in 1969 when the Department of Government Transport CDGT) indicated to the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Association (ATMOEA) its intention to replace one-man operated COMO) single-decker buses with OMO double-decker buses on the Palm Beach-Wynyard express route, and also on special school runs.1 This article examines the causes, conduct and effects of that strike in detail.

The Atlantean dispute became one of the most prolonged industrial campaigns ever waged by the New South Wales Branch of the ATMOEA and must be viewed in the context of the Association’s two-decade long opposition to the shift of government bus services from a two-man operation to a one-man operation. Indeed, prior to the commencement of the strike, the association possessed a number of grievances.  A key issue was the health of bus drivers following the conversion from trams to buses. The union had been negotiating improved pay rates for drivers regressed in grade through stress-related illnesses, but it was also concerned with the causes of those stresses in the first instance, such as tight scheduling and other factors associated with driving one-man buses -. And of course there was the threat to jobs.

These were the issues confronting union officials when the dispute started, the most serious of all being the one-man operation of the Atlantean bus. The Atlantean double-deck bus was built to a design specified by the DGT which placed the staircase opposite the centre door rather than behind the driver’s cab, a feature which was very common in the United Kingdom.  This modification, together with the problems associated with a passenger counting device, mirrors and periscope would be sighted by the ATMOEA as the major reason why its members deemed the vehicle unsuitable for one-man operation.

Background to the dispute

At an ATMOEA Executive meeting held on 1 December 1969, its Secretary Pat Ryan reported on the proposed use of the Atlantean by the DGT. He explained that in accordance with a resolution adopted by the ATMOEA Executive, its Industrial Committee had examined the DGT’s proposal.2 On 18 May 1970, Secretary Ryan further reported that the Atlantean bus had been sent to all the bus depots except Newcastle for inspection. The Executive then carried the following motion as its new policy:

That the Commissioner be informed that this Executive is firmly opposed to the use of the Atlantean double-decker bus in a one-man operation, except in the circumstances under which double-decker buses are used at the present without conductor assistance.3

This policy then became the corner-stone in all union activity and in all discussions, conferences and later court hearing in the dispute.4

After protracted negotiations the issue came before Commissioner M.E Lyttleton of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. On 5 August 1970 he ordered there should be a trial of the bus in traffic under a one-man operation for one week commencing 24 August.5 The ATMOEA, however, refused to cooperate with this and other trials.

Following further hearings the Commissioner ruled on 7 December that the Atlantean bus could operate without conductor assistance on express services presently operated by one-man single-decker buses but, not on unsupervised school journeys.6 The decision was diabolical for the ATMOEA in that it allowed OMO Atlantean buses on all express services presently operated by OMO single-decker buses.

On 18 December rosters were displayed at Mona Vale and Brookvale Depots for OMO express services using Atlantean buses but were removed the same day. They were again displayed at both depots on 11 January 1971, but withdrawn on 13 January following an announcement by Premier Askin that a State Election was fixed for 13 February.7 Following re-election of the Askin Government, rosters scheduled to commence on 1 March were displayed at Mona Vale and Brookvale Depots.8

The Dispute

On 1 March bus crews at Brookvale & Mona Vale depots went on strike following the suspension from work of a colleague for refusing to drive an OMO Atlantean bus. In response the DGT applied to the Arbitration Commission for the ‘Limitation and Restriction of Hindering Award Clause’ to be inserted in the GovernmentTram & Bus Employees Traffic Award.The application was heard by Justice John Moore, and the Award was varied in the manner requested. 9

On day 16 of the strike, the ATMOEA was fined $800 in the Industrial Court for failing to conform to conditions of the Award as varied by Judge Moore.The following day the DGT informed the muon that from 22 March they intended to roster OMO Atlantean buses at Randwick, Willoughby and Pagewood Depots.At the same time, it released news to the media that further summons were being issued against the union, and the question of seeking to have the union de-registered was under consideration. 10

Between 9 March and 18 March, meetings were held in all depots to report the details of the dispute and the necessity for levies to be paid by  members. Resolutions were carried, mostly unanimously, supporting the decisions of the Branch Executive during the course of the campaign. On 19 March, Brookvale and Mona Vale members voted to remain on strike. 11 On 25 March, theATMOEA was fined a further $900 in the Industrial Court for again not carrying out the conditions of the Award as varied by Judge Moore.12 Askin’s Cabinet now moved to resolve what was becoming something of an embarrassment for the government, and in particular  for the Premier, whose constituents had been without government bus services for 23 days.

On 24 March, the Commissioner for Government Transport Stan Berry gave the ATMOEA an ultimatum: He had decided that ‘if staff at Brookvale and Mona Vale Depots do not resume work on 29 March, and operate Atlantean express buses as provided in the award, [he] would have no alternative but to dismiss them’. 13 The dismissed staff would then be paid long service leave where applicable, but not any retiring gratuity, and, if re-employed, these ex-employees would forego previous gratuity and sick leave benefits. Mr. Berry also stated the Government felt that it must provide bus services to the Manly Warringah residents, and, if the men did not resume work, he had no alternative but to hand over the services to private operators. He said he was authorised to hire or sell Government buses and facilities for this purpose.14

The same day Berry met with NSW Labor Council Officials, and informed them of the State Cabinet decision. Labor Council then contacted the ATMOEA and pledged support against the Government’s proposal. Labor Council and ATMOEA officials met with the Minister forTransport, Milton Morris and Commissioner Berry on 26 March.After prolonged deliberations the following statement was issued:

Following upon a lengthy discussion among the parties the Premier gave an assurance that dismissal notices scheduled for next Monday would not be issued and furthermore he also agreed to the lifting of the suspension of the driver at Brookvale who was suspended on 1 March. Union officials agreed, subject to the confirmation of their Executive, to the restoration of the normal bus services in the Manly-Warringah area on Sunday.15

The Premier was quoted as being of the opinion that if a buyer large enough could be found for the Warringah Area Services they should be disposed of.16 However it is highlylikely that Askin was bluffing in an effort to get the men back to work, as Easter was nearing. It would have been a huge public embarrassment for his government not to have buses running for the Easter Show which was due to commence on 5 April. Following the meeting with the Minister, all Executive officers agreed to what was proposed, and services resumed as normal on 28 March.

In keeping with the promise made to the Premier, meetings were held at all bus depots. All carried resolutions endorsing current union policy. 17 Yet, on 31 May, the DGT again rostered Atlantean buses for one-man operation, and again suspension took place.18 When the union Executive met on 8 June the number of suspended members was 632. Also, three drivers had agreed to drive the Atlantean without conductor assistance had doneso with police protection and Departmental assistance. 19 At Willoughby Depot on 3 June, ATMOEA President Noel Quailey threw a bucket of putrid water over a scab and was suspended from duty.

At Randwick, however, another driver joined the ranks of the renegades. In what was seen as significant enticement to strike-breaking, the Chief Traffic Manager, in the presence of a union organiser, told the rebel that the Premier had authorised him to say that in the event of victimisation by his fellow-unionists he would be found suitable work.20 Significantly, on 4 June Judge Moore re-inserted the Limitation and Restriction of Hindering Clause in the Award for six months. The DGT then made application seeking a certificate under Section 32A of the Act, and this was scheduled to be heard by Judge J.P. Aird on 8 June.21

When the matter came before Judge Aird he decided to temporarily suspend the implementation of Commissioner Lyttleton’s decision permitting the operation of OMO Atlantean buses allowing the parties to reach agreement to settlement terms.22 Following the Judge’s decision, suspensions and stand-downs were lifted and bus service resumed to normal on 15 June.

On 16 June, the Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation sat to consider whether or not to permit the holding of a secret ballot. Finally, after hearing submissions from both sides Judge Kirby said he thought both parties should consider allowing the Full Bench to investigate the matter, and both parties agreed.23 On 16 September the Full Bench brought down its decision which can be summarised by the following points:

  1. One-man operation of Atlantean buses would be allowed on all express routes currently utilising one-man single deck operation provided, firstly, that drivers would not issue tickets in the inner-city area and, secondly, that the presence of a conductor be required on each bus in the inner city on both the outward and inward journeys for an initial period of six months to relieve the driver from all other work of a conductor.As already indicated the limited conductor assistance now applying to single deck operation on express routes would continue unless otherwise agreed by the parties.
  2. Atlantean buses shall not be permitted under one-man operation for daily school trips under circumstances presently prevailing.
  3. The differential rate for a driver of an Atlantean double deck bus under one-man operation above that of a driver of a single deck bus under one-man operation shall be 60c per day or part thereof or $3.00 per week.24

The judgement also proposed the setting up of a committee of three representatives from the DGT and three from the muon with either Judge Robinson or Commissioner Lyttleton as chairman to facilitate implementation of the judgement. 25 The union refused the invitation, and on the 21 October the Full Bench met to define the boundaries of the inner city area.26

Shortly afterwards, the renegade drivers finished duty with the DGT on 29 October 1971. None had resigned on their own volition, but had been eased out and paid compensation.27 On 3 November Justice James Robinson signed an order varying the Award for a period of 12 months. Commissioner Berry took steps to implement the Full Bench decision and signalled it with a pamphlet distributed to employees on 15 November.28

On 22 November,76 runs at six bus depots were rostered for OMO Atlanteans. Suspensions commenced early and mid morning once the ATMOEA received message that Commissioner Berry was taking immediate action to have the union deregistered. The men who had been suspended for refusing to drive the Atlantean buses would receive dismissal notices. Following Commissioner Berry’s statement, Secretary Ryan contacted the Labor Council to remind them of the resolution previously carried by the Labor Council on the issue of dismissal of members and denial of their gratuity entitlements.29

At a stop-work meeting at Redfern Oval on 29 November, Secretary Ryan outlined to members the history of the dispute.30 John Ducker then addressed the meeting. He outlined a resolution adopted by the Labor Council on 25 November, asking for a general stoppage in the railways in support of Government bus workers.  Amendments were then moved in opposition to union policy but were defeated. The meeting closed after passing a resolution 3,440 votes to 12 condemning Commissioner Berry’s actions and supporting a recommendation moved earlier to stop work at midnight on 30 November if the suspensions and dismissals were not lifted.31

At the conference with Sir Richard Kirby on 30 November it was suggested a secret ballot of union members take place. This was opposed by representatives of the Department. Kirby then drew up a formula for consideration by the parties and arranged a further conference with Justice Robinson on 2 December. Meanwhile, a stoppage which started at midnight on 29 November continued. On 2 December Departmental representatives indicated they had agreed to Kirby’s formula, but union officers said they could n0t.32

The Disputes Committee of the Labor Council met on 1 December. No assurances in support of bus workers were given by any other union other than financial assistance. There were 4,500 traffic employees involved in the dispute and some 600 non-traffic workers stood down.33 When members met again at Redfern Oval on 8 December attendance was significantly reduced.An amendment to drive the Atlantean bus in accordance with the Full Bench decision was moved, but defeated. On this occasion, members supported a motion 1,455 votes to 120, re-affirming opposition to the one-man use of the Atlantean bus and confirming no return-to-work until all dismissed and suspended members are reinstated with restoration of all rights and entitlements.34

The effect of the stoppage was now having a profound impact on those involved. The number of workers dismissed now numbered 358 and others were retiring, resigning or looking for alternate employment until such time as the dispute was settled. The National Executive of the ATMOEA met in Sydney on 14 and 15 December to discuss the application to have the union de-registered. A hearing scheduled before by Chief Judge Sir John Spicer to decide the matter, was deferred to 16 December, until after the National Executive meeting.

The National Executive resolved to support the stand taken by the NSW Branch and called on the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to implement the decision of the 1971 Congress as regards penal provisions; it also requested the ACTU toissue instructions to all affiliated unions not to seek coverage of any industry covered by the ATMOEA.35

An approach was then made to Mr C. Fitzgibbons, the representative of the Transport Group on the ACTU Executive.  He informed that Mr Souter, ACTU Secretary, said he could not assist with the union regarding deregistration proceedings, unless the conduct of the dispute was placed in the hands of the ACTU.36

The hearing before Judge Spicer was further adjourned to 29 December because Mr Justice Robinson had been invited by theATMOEA to attend a meeting of the NSW Branch on 17 December, to expound on the issues involved if the Association was deregistered.37 When ATMOEA members assembled at Redfern Oval on 20 December 1971, the atmosphere was gloomy. Membership numbers had been savagely reduced, since many had found alternate employment.38

Secretary Ryan addressed the meeting. He explained that because the association was a federal body, in the event of it being deregistered, branches in Western Australia, Queensland,Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, as well as NSW, would all be affected. He reiterated what had happened since 8 December. He explained the union’s national Executive had met, and though it supported NSW members, it expressed deep  concern to the effect deregistration would have in various states ATMOEA Organiser Coulthart then gave a report, followed by Ducker.Acting Secretary of the Labor Council. Secretary Ryan then moved the following motion:

That this meeting continue to view with grave concern the Commissioner’s actions in regard to the dismissal and loss of entitlements to our Union members. We re-affirm that whilst it is not our policy to deprive the public of bus services and bearing in mind we are prepared to man the services as normally rostered withoutAtlantean one-man operation, we have no alternative but to protect our members and consequently re-affirm our opposition to the use of Atlantean double-deck bus in one-man operation. We look with disgust on the decision of the Commissioner for Government transport to dismiss our members, thus depriving them of their livelihood. We demand that all dismissals and suspended members be re-instated to the service with the restoration of all rights and entitlements. Failing this assurance being given, all members remain in dispute until all dismissed and suspended members are restored to the Service with full rights and entitlements.39

Before a vote on the Motion was taken, an amendment and two further amendments were moved and seconded.A vote was taken on the amendment and it was carried on a show of hands.A division then took place, the result being 877 votes in favour and 802 against.The two further amendments were then put and declared lost. The amendment, moved by Waverley Depot Executive Officer Bill Lovell, then became the motion; it was then put and carried 776 votes in favour to 750. The motion read:

After hearing the reports on the Atlantean dispute, this mass meeting agrees to return to work from midnight tonight under the five point plan iaid down by the President of the Arbitration Commission:

Providing the 12 months trial period as agreed to is retained;

(a) That the Commissioner for Government transport agrees not to oppose an immediate application to the Arbitration Commission to grant the wages increases awarded to other States, namely $5 for drivers, $4 for conductors thereafter, and $3 for conductors in the first three months, and the increase in the non-traffic section.

(b) The application for deregistration of the ATMOEA be withdrawn.40

(c) On 10 January, 1972, Secretary Ryan reported that following the mass meeting on 20 December 1971, members resumed work at midnight. All members who had been dismissed by the Department were reinstated and their gratuity and long­ service leave restored; deregistration proceeding against the Association were withdrawn.41


The decision of 7 December 1970 by Commissioner Lyttleton of the Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation Commission, later backed by the Full Bench of the Commission, greatly restricted the DGT use of the Atlantean bus. It therefore put a dampener on the Department’s vision to convert all its bus services to one-man operation sooner than later. This was finally achieved in 1981. However, by then most of the issues that had plagued theATMOEA were being addressed or well on the way to being resolved.

A significant number of workers who were sacked, and others who found alternate employment during the dispute, did not return to work in the industry. Among those who did, some thought the campaign a complete failure while others thought it valuable as it delivered an outcome that restricted general use of the Atlantean bus.

It is appropriate to question why the Union Executive did not give guidance to end the dispute sooner. After all, it could not have expected a better outcome than that delivered by the Full Bench. It is probable that the Executive was looking towards the bigger picture of a total one-man operation and thus hoping for a complete victory.Yet this was never likely to be achieved. Nevertheless, it could be satisfied the campaign delayed the implementation of full one-man operation and was behind the decision by the government to reduce the last order for 100 Atlantean buses to twenty-four.

In August 1980, when the recently created Urban Transit Authority (UTA) was considering a proposal to replace the Atlanteans, it notified the ATMOEA that tenders had been called for 200 new buses of which 30 would be of the double-deck or articulated design. Following this advice the Union informed the UTA that it would not agree to the introduction of further double-deck buses in the industry. However, when the matter came before the UTA Board in December 1980 management had dropped the double-deck option.

John Dean worked on government buses for 41 years and was deputy Executive Officer of ATMOEA at Willoughby bus Depot during Atlantean dispute. He was elected Vice-President of ATMOEA NSW Branch 197476 & 198089 and also held the position of Employee Representative’with the NSW Urban Transit Authority Board 1980-89.


  1. Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Association (ATMOEA) Executive Meeting Minutes, 1 December 1969,pp.10634-5.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 18 May 1970,p. 10763
  4. Ibid., Minutes of Stop Work Meeting, Redfern Oval, 20 December 1971, p. 11182.
  5. Ibid., 10 August 1970,p.l0827.
  6. Ibid., 4 January 1971, pp. 10930-1.
  7. Ibid., 25 January 1971, pp. 10953-4.
  8. Ibid., 22 February 1971, pp. 10971-2.
  9. ATMOEA Special Executive Meeting Minutes, 9 March 1971, pp. 10978-9.
  10. Ibid., 22 March 1971,p.l0996.
  11. Ibid., p. 10992.
  12. Ibid., 25 March 1971,p 11007.
  13. Ibid., pp. 11005-6.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., 31 March 1971,p. 11011.
  16. Sydney Morning Herald, 24-27 March 1971, quoted in G.Travers, From City to Suburb: A Fifty Year Journey, The Story of NSW Government Buses, Sydney Tramway Museum, Sutherland, NSW & Historic Commercial Vehicle Association Co-Op Ltd, Sydney, 1982, pp. 166-7.
  17. Ibid., 19 April 1971, p.11020.
  18. Ibid., 31 May 1971 pp.1103940.
  19. Ibid., 8 June 1971,p.ll043.
  20. Ibid.,pp.ll045-6.
  21. Ibid., p. 11046 and Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 1971, quoted in Travers, From City to Suburb, p. 167.
  22. ATMOEA Executive Meeting Minutes, 15 June 1971,pp. 11056-7.
  23. Ibid., 23 June 1971, pp.11072-3.
  24. Ibid., 20 September 1971, pp. 1129-30.
  25. Ibid., 5 October 1971, p. ] 1141.
  26. Ibid.,l November, 1971, pp. 11160-1.
  27. Ibid., 11161 – also Interview with Peter Maylott.
  28. ATMOEA Executive Minutes, 23 November 1971, pp. 11173-74.
  29. Ibid.pp. 11175-77.
  30. ATMOEA Stop Work Meeting Minutes, Redfern Oval, 29 November 1971,p. 11182.
  31. Ibid., P 11190
  32. Executive Minutes,6 December 1971, pp. 11195-6.
  33. Minutes of Stop Work Meeting, 8 December 1971, pp. 11211-3.
  34. Ibid.
  35. ATMOEA Executive Minutes, 17 December 1971, pp. 11215-6.
  36. Ibid., p. 11217.
  37. Ibid.pp.112167.
  38. Interview Peter Rice 20 July, 2011
  39. Minutes, Stop work meeting 20 December, 1971,pp. 11226-9
  40. Ibid.p 11229
  41. Executive minutes, 10 January, 1972,p.11237.