This week marks a turning point in the London bus workers' pay campaign. About 2,500 bus workers at First Centrewest and First Capital are set to launch the first strike action of the campaign on Friday of this week. They are planning more strikes on 12 and 13 September.
Meanwhile at Sovereign – a smaller company with weaker union organisation – rank and file drivers have tapped into the same mood for a fight by overturning their Unite union reps' recommendation and voting to kick out a below-inflation pay deal.
Drivers at First Centrewest and drivers and supervisors at First Capital all voted resoundingly for strikes after rejecting a 3.5 percent offer. Their action will hit nine garages and shut down key bus routes across the city.
The strikes are part of a campaign by the Unite union to win a London-wide rate of £30,000 or a 5 percent rise, whichever is higher.
At a rally in London last month, Unite officials pointed out the injustice of huge disparities in wage rates for bus drivers doing the same jobs for different companies.
They cited the example of the drivers at Sovereign, who are paid up to £6,000 less than drivers at other companies.
A remarkable vote on Friday of last week saw drivers at the company defying the recommendations of their longstanding union reps and voting to reject the 4 percent pay offer.
With just two days' notice of the ballot, drivers unhappy at the union's response organised to swing the vote. This was a real turnaround at the company.
A driver at Sovereign's Harrow garage told Socialist Worker, 'This is not just significant – it is a revolution. Every year we have had attacks. Yet there has been no fight – the changes have all been accepted by the union.
'This time we organised to let other drivers know that this was a bad deal. The new drivers were key to this. The union put up a poster saying that the deal would give us parity with drivers at London United, which is owned by the same multinational, Transdev. Drivers demanded that the union take the poster down.
'The offer was not really giving parity – pay and conditions are better at London United. But people there are very poorly paid and we should be campaigning for more.'
The offer was rejected by eight votes, but drivers say this doesn't tell the whole story. One union member explained, 'At our garage where we managed to speak to people about the deal, almost 70 percent – 43 out of the 62 who voted – rejected the offer.
'At Edgware where we didn't get to talk to many people it was 65 for the offer and 49 against. But we know the Edgware drivers are pleased with the result.
'For a long time there has been fear and intimidation among the drivers. Not any more. Some are collecting signatures to recall the union reps and elect new ones.
'Many people left Unite in frustration at what was happening. Some have joined the RMT union and some have just left. People are talking about rejoining Unite – they have seen that we can have some input and make decisions.
'We are aware that management may try to drag the negotiations out – we can't let this happen. But we have scored a real victory.'
Sovereign drivers have a long way to go to win decent pay and conditions, but the energy and determination that they have injected into their campaign gives a glimpse of what is possible.
For more on Unite's pay campaign go to » www.londonbusworkers.com