“Things have started to change on the buses in the last year,” says a driver at the East London Bus Company. “There seems to be a bit more courage for a fight.”
While a combative mood among bus workers is not always translating into action, a series of recent strike ballots over pay at several major bus companies gives some indications of the growing anger.
A strike of nearly 3,000 bus workers at First Centre West and First Capital East in London planned for Friday of last week was suspended after management came back at the last minute with an improved pay offer.
The new offer works out at about 4.85 percent an hour across the grades and cuts 9 months off the time junior drivers have to work to get onto a higher grade. Drivers, members of the Unite union, were balloting on the offer on Tuesday as Socialist Worker went to press.
A driver at First Centre West told Socialist Worker, “It was the threat of strike action that forced them to make a better offer – it is 1.25 percent higher than the company’s first offer and they had previously only offered a 3 month reduction for junior drivers to progress to a higher grade.”
He added, “Many drivers were disappointed that the strike was called off. Workers are angry – not so much about the money – but about the attitude of managers.”
The ballot of First workers comes shortly after two other groups of bus workers – at Stagecoach Manchester and at the East London Bus Company – cancelled strikes after winning improved pay offers.
In Manchester a 94 percent yes vote for strike action won a two-year deal of 5.9 percent followed by 4.7 percent next year. At East London Bus Company, Unite members cancelled their strikes after accepting a one-year 4.65 percent deal with a one-off payment of £150.
In both cases there was a significant minority who voted to reject the new offers and go ahead with the strikes. Many drivers at both companies clearly felt that more could have been won.
A driver at the East London Bus Company told Socialist Worker, “A lot of workers were disappointed when our strike was called off at the eleventh hour. Many drivers wanted a chance to stand up and believed that action would win more.”
But despite the setbacks, he said that since the strike by 2,000 bus workers at Metroline in North London at the end of last year, there seems to have been a growing confidence among bus workers in London.
“It feels like London bus workers have been asleep over recent years. The last big strike across the buses in London was in 1989.
“But now things seem to be changing. Last year at East London we came close to strikes over pensions and again earlier this month over pay.
“But it is not just pay that bothers people – it is the whole way management treat us. So there is a growing feeling that we should take action.”
He says there are lessons to learn from the recent disputes. “One lesson is not to let the negotiations drag on until Christmas. Next year the union will insist that negotiations take place earlier so management can’t try to use the pressure of Christmas to get people to accept poor deals.
“We should also have a wider public campaign about our disputes – we can win the public onside that way.”
One other lesson from East London is the subjective factor that good union organisation can make. In the vote over the recent deal only one garage overwhelmingly rejected the deal – because they thought that more could be won.
Even at companies where there hasn’t been a strike ballot, many bus workers report growing frustration at low pay, insecurity and stress at work.
A driver at Arriva North in London told Socialist Worker that workers at the company recently accepted a pay offer of 4.5 percent plus 0.5 percent in January. They were balloted three times since June on what amounts to the same offer.
He said, “It might sound good to win an rise over 4 percent – I know many workers such as postal workers are still fighting to get over 2 percent. But the real wages are so low – for most of us about £10 an hour – and the cost of living rising so fast that this is not enough to keep up.”
In March Arriva announced record profits of £110 million for 2006.
“We know Arriva has the money to pay better wages,” the driver said. “People can’t afford to live on the rates they are paid. You can’t always see poverty in this country,” he added. “And of course the government isn’t interested in people’s suffering.”
The driver says that at his garage there is growing frustration. “Some drivers have been disappointed that the union hasn’t led more of a fight,” he said. “We have to strengthen the union and fight for a union that really represents the members.”
“We should be campaigning across the different companies. We should take on the tendering system that is used as an excuse to attack workers’ pay.”
The East London driver agrees. We need a bigger campaign over a number of issues we face across the city. We should be taking our demands to London mayor ken Livingstone – who faces an election next year – and Transport for London – they are the paymasters, we should take the fight to them.