Socialist Worker

Momentum grows ahead of Tuesday's London bus strike

by Raymie Kiernan
Issue No. 2435

Bus drivers on a protest last September demanding one rate for the job

Bus drivers on a protest last September demanding one rate for the job (Pic: Socialist Worker)


Around 27,000 London bus drivers in the Unite union are set to walk out on Tuesday of next week. It’s part of a pay dispute with 18 bus companies and Transport for London (TfL). 

Drivers are working flat out to build the picket lines for maximum impact. 

It’s a fight that everyone should support.

Des, a Unite rep at the Go Ahead bus company, told Socialist Worker, “It’s great we’re all out together. 

“The momentum is now kicking in and a lot of drivers are making plans. We’re ready to make sure our pickets are up from 4am.” 

The strike will have a huge impact–the buses are crucial to keep London moving.

Des explained, “It will be manic if the buses are on strike. The tubes and trains will be overcrowded and that will raise health and safety questions for those workers.” 

“The pickets are crucial,” north London Unite convenor Craig told Socialist Worker. 

“It’s a collective thing. Drivers looking to go in won’t want to look us in the eye, knowing what we’re doing will benefit them.”

Joanne Harris, a Unite officer for this pay campaign, said, “We’re looking very strong for Tuesday. 

"Drivers need to be aware of the intimidation tactics that can be used to frighten people from striking. If management come round asking if you’ll be in work or no on Tuesday, you have every right to ignore them.”

Unite is demanding that London bus companies sign up to collective bargaining to end unequal pay rates across the capital. 

There are 80 different pay rates, and the disparity can be over £3 an hour depending on the company.

But Des said the dispute is not just about pay. “We want improvements across the board,” he said. 

He argues for set hours each week. “I could work 45 hours one week, 38 the next and something different the following week. That’s not what I signed up for–and I’m not getting paid overtime for extra hours,” he said. 

New starters also face different lengths of time to get higher pay rates, which also depends on the company. 

Des said, “It takes five years to get to the top rate at my place, and at other companies it can be nine. Drivers work extra hours to top up their pay. But it means they’re competing against workers on higher rates, so the boss uses them as they’re cheap labour.”

This has raised debates about what will happen to more experienced drivers on the top rate of pay. 

Craig argues, “This strike is in everyone’s interest, even the higher paid drivers who might think they’re alright.” 

The intense competition between companies for routes means there are no guarantees for anyone. “What happens if you’re transferred over to somewhere with lower pay,” Craig pointed out. 

Bus drivers have the power to take on the bosses and win–but it will take more than just one-day walkouts. 

Des said, “The next stage has to be 48 hours–that would bring a complete shutdown.”

But Craig argued, “We need to strike at least two days next time. We should be laying out a whole series of dates for the next strikes.

“We have to show them we’re serious about this.”

Some workers names have been changed


'Value for money'?

Transport for London (TfL) insists that it can’t do anything about drivers’ pay. 

Its bus director Mike Weston claims, “Pay and conditions are a matter for those companies and the union to discuss.”

Yet bosses have ignored repeated union attempts to negotiate, and it’s TfL that allows the companies to operate the buses. 

Weston also claims that privatisation “provides the best value for money” and lets bosses “determine the best terms and conditions” for workers. 

But the best situation would the union’s demand–equal pay and a single agreement–and TfL is no small player in this. 

Bus companies compete for TfL contracts on a route-by-route basis. TfL then provides the company with its income, with bonuses and deductions made for good and poor service. 

The revenue from fares–£1.26 billion last year–goes to TfL.

So to turn a profit, companies drive down costs, the biggest of which is workers’ wages. 

This model of running London buses is what brought such huge pay disparities. 

Essentially, TfL is subsidising the bus companies. TfL’s net cost of London’s bus services–the difference between subsidies it gives out and revenue it takes–was over £3.5 billion during the first decade of this century. 

During the same period shareholder dividends at Go Ahead were more than £280 million, and Stagecoach paid its shareholders nearly £420 million.

Meanwhile, passengers’ fares have doubled in the last decade. 

The current setup only provides “best value for money” for the company bosses and shareholders, who’ve trousered billions in public money.

Four firms now run over 75 percent of London buses. The biggest, Go Ahead, accounts for 25 percent of the London bus market alone while Stagecoach controls 15 percent. 

Go Ahead’s profits rose by 19 percent last and its chief executive’s income more than doubled to almost £2 million. Stagecoach announced biannual profits of £123 million and its boss pocketed £2.2 million last year. 

Bus companies an easily afford equal pay for London bus drivers. 

 


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