Hundreds of drivers at Britain’s biggest bus operator, First, were on strike on Monday of this week against bosses’ attempts to impose a national pay freeze for this year.
And First drivers in London start balloting this week to join the action.
First is trying to break off groups of workers by offering a 3 percent deal for next year at many depots, coupled with a bribe of a one-off payment. But bosses are trying to hold the line on a pay freeze for this year.
Unfortunately First’s offer was enough for the Unite union to suspend planned action in most of South Yorkshire and in south Essex so workers could ballot on the new offer.
But elsewhere strikes went ahead, and their message was clear – a pay freeze is not acceptable. Around 800 workers in Bury, Bolton and Wigan struck for the eighth time.
They were joined by bus workers in much of Essex who were on their second one-day strike.
First bus drivers in Sheffield also struck for three days in a separate dispute over disciplinary procedures (see box).
Pickets in Bolton celebrated as they turned back a bus driven by an inspector (pictured above). The strikers were particularly angry because the inspector had benefited from union representation in the past.
Bolton has been the centre of a small but expensive scabbing operation, as the company has paid out thousands of pounds to ship in Scottish managers and put them up in a plush hotel. This has added to the sense of grievance over the pay freeze.
But on this occasion the usual ritual of polite requests, followed by stronger words when managers fail to respect the picket line, was replaced by an adamant refusal to allow the bus through.
There was a great cheer as it was forced to back into the garage. When two police officers arrived they spoke to the managers but did not intervene in any decisive way.
This raised the question of why strikers should allow any bus to cross the picket line and what tactics are needed to stop the scabbing operation.
Management has attempted to use legal threats to try to limit the number of pickets and stop the strikers shouting “scab”.
Around 30 pickets gathered in Bury. As in Bolton, the mood was very determined.
Jimmy Green from Unite was annoyed that South Yorkshire garages have decided to re-ballot on such a miserable improvement in the offer.
In Chelmsford, Essex, strikers mounted a 50-strong picket line.
The strikers were proud that a large group of Polish drivers from the depot were part of the action.
The talk on the picket line was about the need to spread the action and pull out other key garages. The drivers see London as the key to this.
London drivers will start a formal strike ballot from this Thursday. Meanwhile, drivers should not be conned by First’s bribes – and should hold out to break the pay freeze.
Additional reporting: Derek Coleman, Geoff Brown, Tony Sullivan