A strike of some 2,500 London bus workers on Friday of last week saw mass picketing on the streets as strikers brought many bus routes in the east and west of the city to a standstill.
The workers stuck after overwhelmingly rejecting a 3.5 percent pay offer at First Capital East and First Centrewest, both part of the hugely profitable First Group – the largest bus and train operator in Britain. The workers are set to strike again for 48 hours from 12 September.
This strike was the opening shot in a campaign by the Unite union to win the same higher rate of pay across all the London bus companies.
As hundreds of pickets gathered outside the nine striking garages across London, the spirit of defiance and determination was obvious – as was the success of the strike.
At every garage buses were lined up displaying their “not in service” signs.
Even First bosses admitted that only a handful of buses went out all day.
More than 200 pickets massed outside Westbourne Park in west London, cheering as passers-by hooted horns and waved in support.
One of the strikers summed up the feeling of many on strike. “This is not just about the pay – it’s about how we are treated,” he told Socialist Worker.
“The company don’t show us any respect. They make huge profits – but we carry all the stress, and we do the work that makes them money.”
Another striker explained the impact of low pay: “Most of us have to work 50 or 60 hours a week just to make enough to money to keep going.
Cost of living
“Most of the drivers here have families. But we never see our kids. I have worked here for seven years. I haven’t been able to even take my kids on holiday for the last three years.
“Sometimes we might finish at 10pm, go home, sleep, get back to work for 6am the next day. It’s totally exhausting. And its not safe driving when you are so tired.”
At all the picket lines strikers said that pay has become an urgent issue as the cost of living spirals.
“It’s hard enough to make ends meet as it is,” one striker at Westbourne Park told Socialist Worker.
“But I’ve just had a letter from the council saying my rent is going up £10 a week – where am I supposed to find that? And I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve got a council flat. What about those privately renting?”
“And don’t even start thinking about a mortgage on our money,” another striker chipped in.
At the Lea Exchange garage in Leyton, east London, 100 strikers picketed the garage.
The union rep said that several drivers had joined the union on the picket line so that they could be part of the strike.
Drivers explained just how stressful the job is. “I don’t think most people understand what we have to put up with,” she told Socialist Worker.
“I love my job and it’s a very responsible position, but many days I end my shift with tears in my eyes.
“We never know what we’re going to face when we go out on the road. Many passengers are brilliant – but we also face abuse, racism and the risk of assault.
“We get the blame if anything goes wrong with the buses and we are constantly monitored to see if we are running late.”
Many strikers were discussing the impact of the economic crisis.
“The credit crunch is really hitting people hard,” one striker told Socialist Worker. “But it doesn’t affect the company directors who still make millions.
“We face abuse every day on our job – but the biggest abuse is from the company. We are fighting here to get our dignity back.
“The government has also let people down,” he added. “They always line up with big business. They are not helping workers to deal with the crisis, and they are helping to hold down pay.”
Most strikers were very enthusiastic about the prospect of strikes alongside bus workers from other companies.
Unite members at Metrobus last week voted by over 90 percent for strike action. They may strike alongside First workers on 12 September.
Workers at Metroline and Arriva South are also balloting for strike action over pay.
The level of information about the different disputes still varies between garages.
Bus workers will need to build up networks of activists that can share information and organise across garages and companies.
There is clearly a mood for action across London. Bus workers at company after company have kicked out recent pay offers and are campaigning for the union’s claim of 5 percent or a drivers’ wage of £30,000 – whichever is higher.
One of the First Bus strikers explained, “We are all in the same boat. The companies are trying to play us off against each other. We need to be out on strike together.”