Around 3,500 striking London bus workers brought many garages and routes to a standstill on Friday of last week.
Workers in the Unite union employed by First struck for two days – their second strike over pay in a fortnight. They were joined on the first day by 1,000 Unite members at Metrobus.
There were pickets of up to 100 drivers at every striking garage. Strikers brought flags, gazebos and barbecues to create a carnival atmosphere.
Some First reps even toured the picket lines with a loundhailer and music – creating a mobile strikers’ karaoke.
The hoots and waves of support from passing drivers employed by other companies gave a sense of the growing mood over pay on the buses.
At every garage workers spoke about how their pay has fallen behind rising prices. Many drivers said they are forced to pay essential bills with credit cards each month.
A First driver at Lea Interchange explained, “Bills have gone up. But when we say we need a pay rise to keep up with rising costs we don’t get it.
“We know First is making huge profits – all the companies are. First is the biggest bus operator in Britain. Those at the top are not worrying about how they are going to pay their bills or buy clothes for their children.”
Low pay means working long hours. Many drivers said they regularly work 50 or 60 hours a week. “It has an impact on your life,” one driver said. “It is bad for your health and it means you are so tired there are lots of arguments with your family. It is a very hard job.”
There was discussion at many picket lines about the competition between bus companies, which leads to huge disparities in wages.
On the 100-strong picket lines at the Orpington Metrobus garage, drivers Steve and Chris told Socialist Worker, “The problem is the system – why is it that in one garage just up the road drivers get £4,000 more for doing the same routes in the same area?
“We all do the same job – so we want the same wage for every bus driver.”
The strikes were part of the London-wide campaign by the Unite union to win the same higher rate of pay and better conditions at all the bus companies.
On the first day of the strikes, drivers at Arriva North rejected their 4 percent pay offer by a whopping 1,472 votes to 71.
Recent ballots at the other major companies have shown the same mood to fight over pay.
Drivers at Metroline and Arriva South – two of the biggest London companies are currently in the process of formal strike ballots.
The beginnings of a serious fight on the buses has rejuvenated much of the union and brought in new members.
Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey told strikers at Westbourne Park that drivers at other companies are set to join the action.
Strikers cheered as he said that if necessary “we will bring London to a standstill”.
Many bus workers are impatient to be part of joint action across the city.
The union leadership must seize this moment and not lose the momentum or waste the mood for a united fight.