Bus drivers working for Metroline in London are in dispute with their bosses over pay – and have taken two days of strike action so far to press home their point.
But the dispute is not just about money, according to many Metroline drivers – it is also about winning respect for the job that they do.
Socialist Worker went to Cricklewood garage in north London to talk to a group of bus workers about the reality of their working lives.
“People think bus drivers are stupid to do this job,” says Derek. “We work unsocial hours and we don’t see our families for long periods of time. But we have to work to support our families.”
This is echoed by Brian who has worked on the buses for 14 years. “It’s a very stressful job,” he says. “It’s long hours, low pay – and no respect.
“The worst thing they ever did was get rid of conductors,” he adds. “That puts all the responsibility on one person. We’re responsible for the bus, the passengers and the money.
“We’re even supposed to hand out penalty notices to passengers who refuse to pay – how can we enforce that?”
Anwar agrees, “Stress is a big issue. If you make any small mistake, you’ll get a reprimand. Everyone in this canteen will have had a warning for something.
“Every day when we take the bus out, we don’t know what will happen. And if something goes wrong, that could be the end – you could be out of a job.”
Anwar tells me what his day involves: “Today I worked from 8.30am till 7.30pm. Other people start as early as 4am or finish as late as 2am.
“We have to come in before we take the bus out and do the paperwork and check that the bus is OK to drive. Then we drive for up to five hours before we get a break – I do nine or ten hour shifts.
“You only get one real break in the middle. You have some five minute standing times scheduled – but if it’s busy or you’re running late, you lose these as you’re making up time. When you finish, you have to cash up, sign off, park the bus, and deal with any problems.”
Desmond adds, “We have all the responsibility for money on the bus as well as having to drive safely. If there are any mistakes, we have to pay the shortfall.
“We’re under pressure to meet schedules all the time. They tell us to drive safely, but they want us to meet their targets. It all adds to the stress.”
Despite their treatment, the bus workers see themselves as delivering a vital public service. “It’s a really important job,” adds Jeff.
“We take people to work. We drive buses in the early morning and during the night, when there’s no other public transport running.
“The company likes to say that we’re professionals, that we’re highly trained. But they don’t treat us like professionals – and they certainly don’t pay us like professionals.”
The low rates of pay force many workers, especially those with families, to do a great deal of overtime in order to earn enough money to survive.
“It’s disgusting that we have to work so much overtime just to pay our bills,” says Janet. “For people with kids, this means they often don’t see them for days at a time.”
Most of the workers that Socialist Worker spoke to have been assaulted on duty at some point. “Assaults are a very big issue – and the response from the company is disgraceful,” Frank says.
“After a couple of weeks you get a letter telling you to go for an interview. The first question you’re asked is not ‘How are you?’, but ‘When are you coming back to work?’
“In other words, ‘when are you going to start making money for us again?’ This is not a caring sharing company, and we’re not valued for the job we do.”
London is a divided city
London is one of the most divided cities in the Western world when it comes to the gap between the rich and the poor.
Around 4,200 bankers in the City will get Christmas bonuses of more than £1 million each this year. But ordinary workers in London struggle to pay the bills every month.
“We can’t live on these wages,” says Hasan, a driver with Metroline.
“Most months I take home about £1,100. By the time I’ve paid my mortgage and bills, I only have £100 left for shopping.”
Mortgages are out of reach for many. This means living in rented accommodation, which in turn leads to insecurity, overcrowding and debt.
Brian said he had worked on the buses for over a decade. “I still don’t earn enough to get a mortgage,” he says. “Lots of people end up living miles away from work, because that’s all they can afford.”
Derek from Cricklewood garage said, “It’s a very hard life. You pay the rent – or mortgage if you’re lucky enough to own a house – and then you have to pay bills that are going up all the time.”
The bosses at Metroline, in contrast, do not have problems with the bank. The company is set to make £130 million profit this year.
“Metroline’s making a lot of money out of us,” continues Derek. “Without us, how could they make any money? We read about their profits, but what profits do the workers see?”
John adds, “The management don’t have to worry about how they are going to get through Christmas, how they are going to pay their bills. For us, it’s a struggle every day.
“They live in a different world. They get to take their kids white water rafting for their holidays – I take my kids to Butlins for a week.”
Amanda, a driver with Metroline, told Socialist Worker about how low pay impacts on family life. “You often find people have to work the early shift so they can pick up the kids from school,” she said.
“A lot of people have partners who do shift work too, so that they can juggle the childcare. It means people don’t get to see their families.
“A lot of bus workers are migrants – migrant workers do a lot of the low paid jobs in London. A lot of them are highly qualified, but can’t get the jobs they’re qualified for, so they end up on the buses. It’s really tough for them – a cycle of low pay, bad housing and moving around.”
Public service not private gain
Buses are big business. Metroline is owned by Comfort DelGro, a Singapore-based multinational and the world’s second largest land transport group.
Arriva, the largest operator in London, runs trains, buses and other transport across Britain and Europe. It made £57 million in profits in the first six months of this year, a 5 percent rise on the same period last year.
The buses were deregulated by the Tories in the mid 1980s, and privatisation has continued under Labour. There are still a handful of council-run services, but most are now run by private companies. Council bus services are also forced into competition with private firms.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both argue that climate change is a crucial issue facing the planet. However, they are both committed to using the market to attempt to fight it.
This is why Brown entrusted Rod Eddington, former chief executive of British Airways, to carry out a recent transport review that suggested nationwide congestion charges as a way to cut road use.
But punitive measures towards car users won’t cut the number of cars on the road, unless there is a cheaper alternative. That means an integrated public transport system.
Renationalising public transport and funding it properly would go some way towards cutting the use of cars and cheap domestic flights.
London mayor Ken Livingstone has built his reputation on support for public transport. But bus workers are less than impressed with his record.
“Livingstone encourages people to use buses – but there’s no point just saying buses are important if the people who do the work driving the buses aren’t treated with respect or paid a decent wage,” says Amanda, a driver for Metroline.
“Before he became mayor, Livingstone said that he would get rid of the tendering process – but he hasn’t. So there’s constant competition for routes. And that means there’s an incentive to cut costs, cut wages, and put more pressure on drivers to meet targets and schedules to win those routes.”
There is big competition for the busy routes in London and other major cities. But rural areas and the poorer parts of cities don’t make money – and no company wants to run those routes, even if they are essential to the people living there.
According to Metroline’s chief operating officer Sean O’Shea, writing in the company’s staff newsletter, winning more routes is about a “team effort”.
But drivers see little evidence of a “team” share in the £27 million profits that Metroline made in just three months this year.
“Privatisation destroyed the bus service,” Brian from Cricklewood told Socialist Worker. “All the competition between different companies has meant lower pay and constant attempts to cut bonuses and pensions. I was earning more in the 1980s in real terms than I am now.”
This isn’t just true of Metroline, he adds. “All the companies in London work for Transport for London. They try to play us off against each other, but all drivers are in the same boat.”
“Back in 1992, we were paid the same as tube workers,” says a driver for Thorpes, a company taken over by Metroline in 2004. “Competitive tendering and privatisation, along with a union leadership that didn’t fight, drove down pay and conditions.”
But there is a wind of change. “There’s been a change in the union in the past few years. It’s been good to see so many rank and file drivers getting involved in organising the Metroline strikes.”
Fundamentally this is about two utterly different visions of public transport – one that sees buses as an essential social function, the other that sees it merely as a means of making money. As Amanda puts it, “Bus companies should be public services – not profit making businesses.”
A year of anger and action on the buses
The dispute at Metroline is the latest in a series of strikes and disputes on the buses. Privatisation means that bus companies compete to hold down wages, while attacking pensions and other conditions. The low pay, stressful conditions and a labour shortage combine – but many bus workers are fighting back.
Thousands of bus workers around the country have been involved in strikes or threats of strikes that have won improved offers over the last year. Action includes:
- December 2005
Workers at First Bus Staffordshire and Cheshire won a 21 percent pay rise after seven days strike action. Some 150 joined the union during the dispute.
Workers at Aberdeen First held a 48-hour strike – their first strike since 1982. Up to 200 strikers joined the picket line at any one time.
Some 3,000 bus workers in Glasgow balloted in support of colleague sacked for being “lippy” to a passenger.
Some 3,600 workers at Travel West Midlands won £7.50 an hour after voting to strike.
Cleaners and engineers at First Bus Staffordshire and Cheshire strike held a week-long strike followed by an overtime ban.
Around 700 drivers, engineers and clerical workers in the RMT union working for Go-Ahead buses in Wiltshire and Dorset voted for strike.
Bus workers in the T&G union at Arriva North East, which covers County Durham, Teesside and parts of North Yorkshire, took strike action. Some 800 drivers won £7.50 an hour rising to £8 an hour.
Eastbourne Buses – the first municipal bus company in Britain – saw the first strike in 100 years of the company’s history. Some 120 T&G members joined the picket line.
The first strike at Nottingham City Transport for 30 years led to 4,700 bus journeys being cancelled on the first of three one-day strikes. The strike involved 830 drivers and won a pay rise of 35p an hour.
T&G members at First Bus in Norfolk and Suffolk voted to strike.
Around 900 drivers at First South Yorkshire won a pay rise after voting to strike.
TSSA union members at First Centre West buses in west London voted for strike action.
Workers at Stagecoach in the north east of England voted for strike action. GMB members in Sunderland accepted an improved offer and settled before the strike.
T&G members in Newcastle and South Shields rejected the offer and struck.
First Bus workers in Norwich voted to strike again, following a week long strike in September 2005.
Drivers working for Rapsons’ buses in Orkney and the Highlands voted for strike action.
There is currently a ballot for action at East London bus group over pensions.
First Bus in Leeds have called three days of strike action, including Christmas Eve, over changes to their final salary pension scheme.
The names of some drivers have been changed to protect their identities
For update on the Metroline dispute, go to Metroline workers want action