A national battle is brewing over pay as Britain’s biggest bus operator, First, tries to impose a pay freeze on thousands of its workers.
Around 800 drivers at First depots in Bolton, Bury and Wigan struck for the sixth time on Monday of this week against the company’s national pay freeze. They were joined by 400 drivers at depots in Essex who took their first day of strike action.
Meanwhile, strikes by First workers in South Yorkshire that had been planned for this week were suspended at the last minute.
Workers there will ballot over a new offer of a pay freeze for this year followed by a 2.5 percent rise next year. Three additional days of strikes at the Sheffield depot over disciplinary procedures were also suspended.
There is clearly a mood for a national fight over pay at First. There were large pickets at all the striking depots.
The fight is for a decent wage, but also for many a protest against worsening working conditions, long hours and increasing stress.
On the picket line in Colchester, Essex, striker Rob summed up the anger of many workers at First. “Why should my health suffer so some fat cat can live off my sweat?” he asked.
“Why doesn’t the management suffer for once? The firm is still living in the Dark Ages. I am not a slave. I am a human being.”
Colin Smith, vice chair of the Unite union branch, added, “We are fed up with how we are treated. We would like a little extra cash but in the forefront this is about working conditions.
“I have been working with this company for 11 years. And year after year conditions are deteriorating or even being removed.”
Strikers at the Hadley depot in Essex organised a rota to picket throughout the day, with around six pickets covering each entrance. The drivers got a lot of support from passing postal workers.
Strikers at the Bury depot gathered from the early morning for a picket-line barbecue. They reported that the strike was very solid.
And at Bolton and Wigan the strike was also solid and the mood of the strikers good.
Management at some depots have gone on the offensive, trying to use anti-union laws and the police to limit the number of pickets or ship people in to try to break the strike.
But the workers remain determined. And, with ballot results due in West Yorkshire and London, more could soon be joining the action.
But there is a danger that the determination seen on the picket lines could be wasted. Calling off the South Yorkshire strikes while the pay freeze remains sets a dangerous precedent.
The offer of 2.5 percent next year and nothing this year is being recommended by Unite. It is the same as one accepted by workers in Aberdeen who had a brilliant series of strikes only to later settle for this shoddy compromise.
First can afford a pay rise – it made £134 million in profits last year.
Bolton, Bury and Wigan workers are due to strike again on Friday of this week and the Essex drivers are out again a week on Monday.
Send messages of support to the Essex drivers: firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional reporting by Mark Bergfeld, Tim Sneller, Derek Coleman and Geoff Brown