Some 300 of the lowest paid bus workers in London struck for 24 hours on Monday of this week. These were the opening shots in this year’s battle for better pay across the capital.
The drivers work for London Sovereign – a small company in north west London owned by the European transport giant Transdev. While Transdev boasts record profits, the drivers earn around £6,000 a year less than workers at other London companies.
At the two Sovereign garages in Harrow and Edgware large numbers of strikers joined the picket, undaunted by snow and sub-zero temperatures.
At Harrow the workers organised a brazier and a barbecue, decorating the area with bright union flags. Passing motorists beeped in support.
The workers, members of the Unite union, voted by almost 90 percent for strikes after rejecting management’s “final offer”.
Bosses tried to say the deal was worth 5.7 percent. But the small print and attached strings mean that the offer works out as less than 4 percent on basic pay.
The action was solid, with only one driver going into work at Harrow and a tiny handful of buses leaving the Edgware depot.
Unite rep Abdul Omer spoke to Socialist Worker from the Harrow picket line. “This strike shows how strong we are,” he said. “Next time we meet with management we can look them in the eye and they will know that the drivers here are strong and determined.”
The action was marked by a high level of rank and file involvement. Around 45 strikers had gathered outside the Harrow garage by 7am. Many more came to do a stint on the picket line at different times throughout the day.
Around 20 pickets assembled outside the Edgware depot in the early morning. They were determined and proud of the action they were taking.
At both pickets strikers were angry at the fact that management responded to their overwhelming strike vote by writing to every driver and trying to persuade them to individually sign up to the company’s deal.
One striker at Edgware told Socialist Worker, “I am very annoyed that the management letter tried to turn every worker into an individual doing deals with the bosses.
“That will lead to disaster. The large majority of people here are out on strike and totally behind the union.”
Many strikers at both garages talked about how low pay is driving them to work long hours.
One Harrow driver explained, “I love the job, but it is very stressful. The pay is very bad – it works out as about £320 for a 40 hour week.
“I hardly ever get to see my children. If I’m working late shifts sometimes I don’t see them at all for a whole week.”
Abdul Omer explained how this has wider implications: “The privatisation of the bus industry not only pushes down the wages and conditions of drivers but threatens the health and safety of all Londoners.
“Low pay forces drivers to work long hours, sometimes as many as 60 hours a week. Drivers are tired and stressed – and the break times are not long enough. So our campaign is for the safety of all Londoners.”
The Sovereign workers have had to fight for a union they feel genuinely represents their interests.
“We had a revolution from the rank and file in this garage,” says Abdul. “In many garages in London people think that the union is not fighting hard enough for the members.”
Because the union officials at Harrow were only recently elected and do not yet have access to the branch funds, the drivers at the garage organised a collection to pay for food, drink and barbecue for the picket line.
The strikes should be an inspiration to bus workers at companies across London who are set to ballot for strikes in a fight to win equal and better pay across the city.
Paul Brandon, the Unite rep at Metroline’s Holloway Road garage, collected £100 from his colleagues and took it to the picket line to show solidarity with the Sovereign strikers.
Paul told Socialist Worker, “This strike shows that the London bus campaign is still alive. The campaign for a yes vote for strikes across London starts here.”
At Edgware pickets gathered round in the snow to listen to Unite leaders who urged continued support for justice at Sovereign and for the wider all-London campaign.
John Murphy, a rep at Metroline and a member of the Unite executive, said, “The economic crisis means that bus companies will try to undercut each other and it will be you who are expected to accept cuts.”
He told the strikers that at East London Buses the company has already set up another firm to compete with itself with worse pay and conditions.
Unite organiser Peter Kavanagh told strikers, “Unity is essential in this fight. If you come out again you won’t be out on your own – and everyone will see the power of London bus workers.”
Abdul Omer told Socialist Worker that more action is on the cards. “We need more strikes,” he said.
“One day is not enough to win. We also hope that the rest of London’s bus drivers will vote to join the action and that we can all strike together.”
- Send messages of support to the Sovereign workers at firstname.lastname@example.org
Strikes by drivers at First Hampshire and Dorset planned for late December and early January were called off after drivers accepted a new pay offer. The issue of break time – a key concern among union members at the company – is still unresolved.