Bus workers at Metroline in north and north west London have voted overwhelmingly to say that they are prepared to go on strike over pay. Some 98 percent of drivers – 1,609 to 37 – voted in favour of taking strike action in a consultative ballot held on Friday of last week.
Paul Brandon, a Unite union rep at Holloway bus garage, told Socialist Worker that the ballot result sends a “strong message” that there are problems with the tendering system that assigns London bus routes to different private companies.
“The current system is unable to deliver the sizeable increase in pay and conditions that we deserve and that we need to meet the rapid increase in household bills that workers are facing,” he said.
Paul’s view was echoed by Cliff, a Metroline driver. “There is a clear mood for strikes over pay,” he told Socialist Worker.
“I hope we will be out soon. All the workers from different industries should come out together – nurses, teachers, everyone. That would have a huge impact.”
Metroline is one of several large companies in London at which drivers have rejected recent pay offers of 3.5 or 4.0 percent. In every garage balloted so far, over 90 percent of workers have voted to reject the offers.
The mood to fight over pay was evident on a demonstration of 500 bus workers held in London on Thursday of last week to demand action over pay.
“Strike, strike, strike!” was the loudest chant on the march, which brought together workers from many different bus companies across London. Pierre Talla, branch secretary of Unite at the National Express garage in Hayes, was one of the many reps attending the march. “For a long time the bus industry has been split, with different companies offering different pay,” he told Socialist Worker.
“This is not fair. People do the same jobs with the same public. We should get the same rate of pay.”
The Unite union is campaigning to win an equal and higher rate of pay across all the bus operators in the capital.
It is demanding a driver’s wage of £30,000 a year or a 5 percent rise, whichever is higher, based on a 36 hour week. Currently annual pay can vary between companies by up to £10,000.
Activists are demanding that no company should be allowed to do a deal for less than the full claim.
Jeffrey, a driver from Arriva – where drivers have just rejected a 4.0 percent offer – told Socialist Worker, “The message of our campaign is ‘don’t forget us’.
“Bus workers are very important to the life of the city. If we all stayed at home on the same day we’d bring London and maybe even the country to a halt.”
Like many on the demo, Jeffrey talked about how the job is getting harder and more stressful while pay falls further behind the cost of living.
“I’ve been working on the buses for 15 years,” he said. “I love my job but there is no appreciation and no respect for drivers any more.
“It is a very stressful job – you can see it on the faces of the drivers who end up looking older than they really are.”
The bus workers marched to City Hall to target London mayor Boris Johnson and Transport for London – which has the power to include wage regulations in awarding contracts to bus operators. The competitive tendering system means that bus companies cut costs to maximise profits and win routes.
As the protesters gathered at the end of the march, workers cheered and shouted at any mention of industrial action.
There was applause when Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey argued that London would be “brought to a standstill” if the union’s demands on pay were not met.
Glenn Morris from Unite at First Great Yarmouth travelled to London to join the demonstration and show solidarity.
He told Socialist Worker that what happens in London will have a wider impact in the bus industry across the country.
“We’re on half the wages of those in London. Many of our drivers earn barely above £1 over the minimum wage and have to work very long hours,” he said.
“So if London makes the stand and wins over pay it should be rolled out across the country. London’s the starting point.”
The London bus workers’ campaign is part of a wider fight. Gordon Brown is facing a growing rebellion against his attempts to hold down workers’ wages in both the public and private sector. Bus workers should be part of this pay revolt.
The mood on the demonstration reflected the growing determination to fight over pay – as workers face an insecure future and a struggle to cope with rising bills and spiralling debts.
It is important that actvists build up rank and file networks so that the union doesn’t lose momentum and that the threat of strikes is followed through and not just seen as a bargaining tool.
‘We get hassled and blamed’
Bus workers on the London demo spoke of the daily frustrations of their job.
Hersi, a driver at National Express, told Socialist Worker, “From the moment of taking the bus out to getting back at the end of the shift, everyone blames drivers for any problems.
“When we pick up the bus to take it out, we’re in trouble if there is anything wrong with it. When we get stuck in traffic, we’re hassled by the controllers for being late.
“The passengers blame us because there aren’t enough buses or because we aren’t running on time.
“It’s a very important job. Without us how would people get to work? And traffic in the city would be much worse. We have had enough.”
For more on the bus workers’ campaign go to » www.londonbusworkers.com