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Vale Bob Plain (Plainy)

May 25, 2021Update

Vale Bob Plain (Plainy), 1945-2021

It is with sadness that I wish to advise members on the passing of Bob Plain, or Plainy to those who knew him.

Bob played a significant role in the AFULE, PTU and RTBU before retiring in 2002.

He was the last AFULE President and very first PTU (RTBU) Locomotive Divisional Secretary and NSW Branch President.

Bob Plain has become a name associated with the Rail Tram and Bus Union and tough negotiations and leadership of his beloved Locomotive Division. Bob retired from his State and National Union positions at the end of 2002. At the age of 57, and after a number of health-related problems Bob decided it was time to step down, spend some more time with his wife Robyn and family. The reigns were handed to his deputy, Robert Hayden.

While Bob Plain will be written into trade union history as a strong and effective union leader making a number of significant and lasting contributions to the rail industry, he insists he never had any ambitions to be a union leader.

Bob started his career on the railway in 1960 at Eveleigh as a Call Boy and managed to get in trouble in his first day on the job. The day before he turned up for work was a Bank Holiday and he’d been told that he would start after the public holiday, only to be told in no uncertain terms that he was meant to be there a day earlier. He moved to Enfield in 1961 as a trainee engineman (and joined the Union – Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen – the AFULE), then worked as an acting fireman, becoming a fireman in 1964. While he was happy working on the railway, he had always dreamed of becoming a train driver since childhood. His dream was realised at Flemington in 1974 when he became an electric train driver until 1979, then returning to Enfield as a freight train driver.

The Unionist

Bob’s Union career started in about 1982, when he met Michael Costa and Noel Cox. He started going to meetings to plan an election campaign for the Union elections. They were contesting on a ticket opposing the incumbent team under Bernie Willingale. In those days, Bob says that it was almost unheard of for an AFULE official to be defeated at an election – you were usually considered a member for life.

In 1986 Bob was successful at the union branch elections and was elected Senior Vice-President of the NSW Branch of the AFULE (as he modestly put it – ‘he was only there to make up the numbers’). Michael Costa was elected as Branch President.

In 1989 Bob was defeated in the union elections (by 68 votes to Bill Stannard) By this time, Costa left to take up a position in Labor Council (where he later became Labor Council Secretary). Bob returned to Enfield and resumed as a Driver Trainer.

In 1991 Bill Stannard took medical retirement and a new election was called for his position. Bob by this time had been “bitten by the political/union bug” and realised that he could achieve things for the members in the Union. Bob was re-elected as Branch President (winning against Laurie Cook).

In 1993 the AFULE amalgamated with other rail unions to form the Rail Tram and Bus Union. Bob became Locomotive Divisional Secretary and Branch President in the amalgamated union in 1995.

In interviews for On Wooden Rails in 2002, Bob recalled the times prior to amalgamation as times of conflict, divisiveness and poor achievements in wages growth. Much of this was due to the Without Brake Van (WB) days and the 50/50 shared functions between guards and firemen. A time and practice that he describes as “a scar on the railway, of bitter rivalry and lack of teamwork”. One of Bob’s proudest achievements was his instrumental role of ridding the railway of this practice through a Memorandum of Understanding that he drew up and brokered with other rail unions. The document became part of the 1992 work value case where drivers gained a $34 wage increase. It also provided a new career structure, removing previous barriers to guards being able to progress to drivers’ positions.

While Bob expressed concern at some of the developments occurring in the rail industry (from steam to diesel, emergence of National Rail, sale of FreightCorp; privatisation; and de-regulation) he was rightly proud of the gains made for members under his stewardship. Since 1992, drivers’ wages have increased by approximately 75%. By the year of his retirement the rates of pay for drivers at SRA, FreightCorp and National Rail were within $8 per year of each other. In the 2000 Olympic agreement ETR got the 19-day month on normal shifts and no increase in kilometres.

These are just a few of Bob Plain’s many achievements during his time in the Union. He will always be remembered as a tough opponent by management, and a caring and passionate leader by his members. The railways are a better place for his contributions, principles, expertise and compassion.

Respected by Friends and Foes Alike

We will always have many stories of Bob and his cheeky knock about personality. He was the right man for the time, not only leading the Division, but as he progressed from the rank and file at Endfield to AFULE Delegate and onto the many leadership positions he held in his career.

The true testament to the high regard in which Bob Plain is held was clearly demonstrated at a farewell function at Riverwood on December 6, 2002. The audience was a diverse mix of union members, officials from other unions, management from all the major rail bodies, the Premier Mr Bob Carr and his wife, the Minister for Transport, Mr Carl Scully, and the Minister for Police, Mr Michael Costa and his partner, and his friends and family members. Very few contemporary union officials could attract the genuine respect and affection across the political and union spectrum that was expressed towards Bob Plain. All speakers agreed that Bob Plain was not only a remarkable union leader, but a genuinely ‘good bloke’. After 42 years in the job, he will long be remembered in the rail industry, the union movement, and the wider community as both a strong leader and a great bloke.

He was a mentor to many including myself and respected by those who knew and worked with him.

Our condolences to Bob’s wife Robyn, children Darren, Jason, Michelle and Leonie, grandchildren Mitchell. Jacob, Isabelle, Cory, Harry, Cordelia, Ashleigh, Jake, Sarah and Benjamin and great grandson Brock at their time of loss.

RIP “Plainy”. You will be sadly missed.

For those who can make it, the details for Bob Plain’s funeral can be found here.

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