'WE HAD no other option but to strike. We just couldn't go on being ground into the dirt.' That was how Essex bus driver Roger Martin explained why workers at Eastern National went on strike over pay. The company is owned by FirstGroup, Britain's biggest bus operator.
The strike is a sign of something more general in Britain. It reflects a mood of defiance among workers who have been seen their pay and conditions attacked year after year. In 1994, 96 bus drivers working at Eastern National's Chelmsford depot were sacked after striking following a legal ballot. Since then the bitter memory of that defeat has been used to undermine any fight by the workers over pay and conditions. But in two recent one day strikes Chelmsford bus workers joined around 700 Eastern National drivers in action over pay.
Mick Guernari, president of the Colchester union branch, said, 'I firmly believe the ghost of Chelmsford has been laid to rest. It's the first strike in 29 years we've had across Eastern National, which says a lot about what we've put up with. Blokes are saying they've had enough.'
Roger, who works at the Harwich depot, added, 'I believe the company wanted to make an example of the Chelmsford workers in 1994 to say, 'You'll do as you're told now.' From that moment on we had constant problems trying to get people to take action. But now people are realising wages are really dreadful. So they said enough is enough.'
Dave Smith is a driver at the Braintree depot. He said, 'I've worked on the buses 25 years. The increase in workload and the worsening in conditions have been terrible. Since deregulation all the changes have just been for the company's profit.' Another driver, Brian, dug out his wage slips, saying, 'In 1987-8 I was earning £9,278 a year and now I earn £10,409.'
The company's latest offer would mean a new starter would get £5.35 an hour basic pay. Those working over eight years would get £5.94 an hour. The workers are fighting for a rise of 30p on all rates with no strings.
It is not just poverty wages that have forced the drivers to go on strike. There is increasing anger amongst the drivers that FirstGroup's massive profits have gone straight into the pockets of the bosses and shareholders. Moir Lockhead, FirstGroup's boss, gets £225,000 a year. The company recorded £2 million a day profit in the last six months. This is the same firm that put profit before safety on the railways when one of its Great Western trains was involved in the crash at Paddington.
The bus workers' anger boiled over at FirstGroup's annual meeting in the region last month. Steve Edwards, the TGWU union's convenor for the fleet, reported, 'The question and answer session developed into a near riot. People just kept shouting. There was a lot of raw feeling. Moir Lockhead got rattled and said, 'If you don't like the job why don't you bloody well all leave and go somewhere else'.'
That comment enraged the drivers. As Roger said, 'All the stuff about 'partnership' with the management is cobblers. They're all for partnership as long as it's on their side.'
The strikes at Eastern National have not changed everything overnight. The dispute is now going to the arbitration service ACAS. But they are another indication that the mood among sections of workers is changing.
EASTERN NATIONAL bus workers held a protest on Thursday of last week at their performance related pay scheme, which this year delivered just £3.10 to most workers. 'It was an insult,' said Mick, 'so we decided to put it all together and give it to the Great Ormond Street Hospital charity to make a point.'
Signs that it's a new feeling
'SOMETHING has been sparked off. I don't know whether it is because it's infectious, with groups seeing others doing it, or because everyone is financially under the cosh. There is an increase in disputes on the buses.'
STEVE EDWARDS, TGWU convenor for FirstGroup
Ghost of '94 laid to rest
THE DEFEAT of the Chelmsford bus strikers five years ago had a massive impact on other bus workers in the region. It seemed to prove that workers could not fight and win. But it was not inevitable that the Chelmsford bus workers would lose.
The bosses had prepared for the strike, using the seven day notice period of industrial action to organise scabs. They wanted to smash the union to slash pay and conditions across Eastern National, which was then owned by Badgerline. But the sacked workers were on official strike and had the backing of the TUC.
Ordinary trade union members throughout Britain showed unceasing solidarity on marches. Donations to the strike fund raised £50,000. However, the TGWU leadership refused to mobilise this support and call out other bus workers on strike. Instead the TGWU leader, Bill Morris, argued that the way to beat Badgerline was for the union to fund a free minibus service in competition.
It meant strikers were driving buses and not on the picket line or out building support amongst trade unionists in delegation work. The strategy was a disaster. The bus workers did not win reinstatement and voted to accept a redundancy package.