Hundreds of bus workers joined picket lines across east London last week as a two-day strike shut down almost 60 bus routes in the area.
Around 2,300 drivers from East London Bus Group (ELBG) struck on Friday and Saturday against a pay freeze.
Their dispute is one of a series of flashpoints as bus workers across Britain stand up to bosses’ attempts to use the recession as a cover to attack pay and conditions.
At ELBG’s garage in Upton Park, around 50 Unite members gathered on the picket line on Friday morning.
“No matter how deep the recession, there are always two industries that will be OK—food and transport,” said Max, who works at the garage. “People still need to eat and they still need public transport.”
Other drivers agreed. “I think there are more people using the buses—I know I am getting more passengers,” one striker said. “The companies are just jumping on the bandwagon by talking about the recession all the time.”
Many strikers talked about how management has chipped away at their terms and conditions in recent years. The most recent attacks involve a serious assault on the workers’ pensions.
But the petty things also remind the drivers that bosses don’t value their hard work.
“They have even taken our Christmas vouchers off us,” one driver said. “It’s like they’ve pushed and pushed and we have finally stood up to them.”
Like all bus companies, ELBG bosses seem to be constantly looking for new ways to make cuts. They introduced a new starter rate in March so that all new drivers are on lower pay than the existing workforce.
And ELBG’s parent company has also set up a new garage in Rainham, Essex, where drivers are paid a lower rate than the east London garages.
The striking drivers are only too well aware that ELBG, like its competitors, is in a race to drive down costs, win routes and make profits.
“It’s not a public service any more,” said one driver, who has been with the company for almost 20 years.
“The companies just want to make money. They offer lower and lower bids to run routes, but lower bids means a worse service and worse conditions for us.
“And now Boris Johnson says he wants to make huge cuts to the bus budget—millions of pounds—that can only mean more attacks.”
Over at the Leyton picket line around 50 workers gathered in the early morning on Saturday. Many of the strikers there were also discussing the future of the bus industry.
Some argued that buses should be free like many other public services—to increase passenger numbers and help the environment.
ELBG is the main bus operator in much of east London and the strikes had a huge impact. Bosses only got a small handful of buses out on the road.
The action is spreading. Drivers at a second east London company, CT Plus, are set to strike on Friday of this week over pay. Unite union members at the company voted by 85.7 percent for strikes.
At First Bus—Britain’s largest bus operator—there has already been a wave of strikes against a national pay freeze.
Now over 1,000 workers at First Leeds look likely to join the action when they announce the results of their strike ballot this week.
Two of First’s London companies have already voted for strikes.
“We should all be out together,” one striking ELBG driver said. “Then they would soon see the important job we do.”
Drivers at Stagecoach in Rotherham struck on Monday over pay, after rejecting a miserly 1.5 percent offer. Around 30 strikers picketed the main depot.
Workers at Stagecoach’s Barnsley depot suspended action at the last minute but plan to strike alongside the Rotherham workers on the next two Mondays.
Unite members at First Essex suspended a strike planned for Monday of this week for talks.