SOME 350 bus drivers working for the First Group multinational in Norwich went on strike from Monday of last week in protest at working long hours. 'Our work is so tiring and stressful. When I get home I just sit there, crashed out in an armchair. That's not good for my family-or for the public, if I'm driving when I feel like that,' said driver Sam Stelling.
Their stand has won wide support locally, as many workers face long hours and back the strikers' argument that safety should be a priority in public transport.
The drivers' seven-day strike is also a breakthrough on the buses where action has mainly been limited to one or two days. 'It's no good just doing a one-day strike. We know the company can stand one day. But they are losing a lot more money in a seven-day strike,' said another driver, Steve.
It is the first time the majority of the drivers, members of the TGWU union, have been on strike. They showed their determination with a 91.7 percent vote for action on an 85 percent turnout.
The dispute began after new managing director Barry Pybis imposed an increase in driving hours in October last year. 'It has meant drivers are spending longer periods behind the wheel,' explained driver Dave Manningham. 'Drivers in Norwich haven't had to drive beyond four hours eight minutes at a stretch since 1987. Now he has put that up to five hours and we think he wants to try to up that in the future. This is a company whose pre-tax profits last year were £156.7 million.'
Jerry added, 'Some drivers end up working rest days to get enough money. That means they could be doing 56-60 hours, or even more, in a week.' Robert said, 'I won't work rest days because I want to spend time with my family. But that means my last wage packet was £188 for a 44-hour week.'
'The strike has turned the atmosphere at work upside down. If six months ago you had said we'd be on strike nobody would have believed that,' said Dave Manningham. 'But we'd had enough. Seven years ago drivers even accepted a pay cut. People bent over backwards for the company. Now our strike has halted the company. They have only been able to run around 18 services a day out of 131. They have even resorted to spending tens of thousands on employing drivers from an agency. We've been out there picketing on the three sites with braziers donated by the firefighters, although they said they want them back soon for their dispute! We get out big numbers especially at the peak times in the mornings and evenings to catch the scab buses. One driver, Ray Horne, was even threatened with a knife by a scab. But we know of seven agency workers who said they weren't told we were on strike. They went home after refusing to cross our picket line.'
Driver Gary Sayer said, 'When that new manager came in he promised us things would get better-the state of the buses, the canteen, working conditions. But he hasn't delivered. I'm warmer sitting here than on the buses I drive. I was surprised by the ballot result. I had thought that with the whole process taking so long maybe the enthusiasm would diminish. But it hasn't. You know what? I'm getting more militant as I get older!'
Drivers are pushing their union branch to do more around the strike, such as urging supporters to donate to a hardship fund and raising the dispute's profile with a demonstration and rally.
Ellen Nierop, the partner of driver Ray Horne, explained how three drivers joined a group of them last week raising support in the shopping centre. 'It was great to see how people were behind the strike,' she said.
Turning public sympathy into active solidarity will be vital as the drivers are set to hold a further seven-day strike at the end of January.