Two pay settlements on the London buses have raised wider arguments about how bus workers can fight in a recession.
Drivers employed by First Group voted last week by 915 to 165 to accept a 4.2 percent pay rise backdated to April of last year.
At East London Bus Group (ELBG) drivers voted to accept a new pay offer by a margin of 1346 to 103.
Meanwhile Unite union reps at Metroline are holding pay talks with the company this week, although preparations are under way to hold a strike ballot if no agreement is reached.
Drivers at these three companies have been at the heart of the Unite union’s London bus campaign to win a driver’s wage of £30,000 or a 5 percent rise across the city.
Thousands of bus workers have voted repeatedly for strikes. Drivers at First struck three times last autumn.
At all three companies drivers were poised to come out on strike alongside others on 20 October – but the union suspended the action in the face of threats of legal action from the bosses.
Drivers were then promised a new London-wide strike ballot that never materialised.
Even at Metroline, where a strike ballot is now on the cards, many drivers have become frustrated that the momentum of the campaign has been lost.
Some union reps at First and ELBG are keen to emphasise more positive elements of the deals – at ELBG the union won real improvements on the new starter rate, and at First the company upped its original offer by a small margin.
But drivers mostly feel that the campaign was wasted and that more should have been won.
One Unite member at First told Socialist Worker, “I don’t think the deal is very good.
“But without a strike date or a plan of action, how could we keep telling people to reject the deal?”
Frustration in the garages is also feeding arguments about whether drivers can fight in a recession.
A union activist at First’s Alperton garage summed up a growing feeling among some drivers, “Given the current climate we were not going to get any better deal.”
Other drivers argued that First’s share price has fallen and so drivers shouldn’t be asking for too much from the company.
It is clear that activists on the buses are going to have to take up these arguments.
In any industry the idea that workers have to curb their demands because the company is facing a difficult economic climate is disastrous.
Across manufacturing recently, we have seen that when workers agree to cuts in hours or pay to “help” the company or “save jobs”, they have been repaid with vicious job losses.
In the bus industry the argument that workers can’t fight in a recession stands up even less than most places.
All the big bus operators have raked in huge profits for years. Only last September First Group announced record six-monthly profits of £107 million.
Much of this revenue is secured through contracts.
As one driver from North Wembley pointed out, “All the London companies are going to do fine – they are all paid a fixed contract by Transport for London (TfL) so have a guaranteed income.”
First Group director Moir Lockhead pointed out the same thing in presenting the company’s report last autumn. First Group bosses boast that more than half of their revenue comes from contract work.
And while bosses may be warning drivers of a difficult economic climate, they are busily pointing out to shareholders the recession can boost the numbers using public transport – in particular the bus industry.
The bus operators clearly think that there is good money still to make in the industry.
Only last week it emerged that Metroline’s parent company ComfortDelgro is trying to buy out National Express’s London bus operations.
But even if the companies weren’t making money, it would still be right to fight.
As a Metroline worker put it, “If they can’t afford to pay decent wages then TfL should take them over. They should be nationalised. The buses should be a public service.”
The fight for decent pay and conditions is also a fight over hours and safety.
A driver from north west London explained, “We have drivers at our garage fighting with each other over who gets the overtime.
“But it’s not safe, the hours people are driving. Drivers shouldn’t have to live off overtime – they should have decent basic pay.”
There are many outstanding issues on the buses as well as lessons to learn from the campaign over the last year.
For many activists, one key lesson is that the union should confront the anti-union laws, not retreat in the face of them, and that drivers should defy the law if necessary.
In many garages there is a debate about what sort of union drivers need and how to strengthen rank and file organisation.
And with Metroline workers still set to ballot and some companies such as First already seizing the initiative to start trying to push through the 2009 pay talks, there are urgent questions over pay and conditions to be taken up now.