THE DRIVERS and support staff, all members of the RMT union, escalated action with a four-day strike beginning on Friday of last week. On the day the strike started over 400 Stagecoach workers staged a lively and very noisy march through the streets of Exeter to a mass rally addressed by Bob Crow, RMT general secretary.
Strikers have been angered by the attitude of Stagecoach, which is notorious for its huge profits and low pay. The four-day strike was called after the managing director of Stagecoach Devon, Chris Hilditch, refused to make an improved offer to union negotiators, and instead started recruiting for scabs.
Drivers from the four striking garages, Exeter, Paignton, Exmouth and Sidmouth, currently earn just £5.93 an hour, 20 percent below the industry average. They have claimed £6.50 and yet have been offered only 19p extra an hour. Hilditch grabs £65,000 a year.
The strike is solid, with only two local scabs. Stagecoach has been able to run a very limited service on strike days by using management and supervisor scabs from elsewhere in the country. But last week Stagecoach's management went on the offensive against the strikers.
A refusal to allow drivers to do overtime on non-strike days and a refusal to negotiate seriously with the RMT was followed by a letter over the heads of the union. It was sent to all striking staff and offered a deal which had not been put to the RMT.
While offering a headline figure of £6.75 an hour it also demands total flexibility, with split shifts, longer hours in the summer, unpaid breaks and cuts in sick pay.
At the same time adverts appeared in the local press advertising for scabs on the new terms and conditions.
Hundreds of the management letters have been handed in to the union and will be ceremonially burnt. Laurie, a striker, said, 'Management asked for this dispute with their attitude towards us. They have been rattled by how strong we are. In all my years on the buses I've never known the feeling there is now.'
Low pay is a scourge in much of the south west of England. Lots of work that is tied to tourism has meant that casual labour and minimum wages are the norm for many.
A win for the Stagecoach strikers would inspire not just other bus workers but also the low paid and unorganised in the south west. There is huge public sympathy for the strikers. The local paper, the Express and Echo, had to change its coverage after its anti-strike stance led to a flood of letters.
Some local hotels where the bussed-in scabs were staying asked the scabs to leave when they discovered what was going on. Residents of Topsham, a village just outside Exeter, gave Stagecoach management a roasting at a meeting called to explain why their bus service had been reduced.
Local resident Angie Barbour says, '120 people turned up to hear Stagecoach's managing director explain why they'd cut back our service. Hilditch was an arrogant, pompous pig. He was shocked at the angry reception he got. I said to the meeting that it wasn't fair that people have to walk home because of cuts in the service, and that if he could get a pay rise it was about time he gave his workers one.'
There is lots of local sympathy for the strike, but this needs to be turned into solidarity, both financial and practical.
Firefighters return the solidarity they received
RMT GENERAL secretary Bob Crow told the strikers last week that their dispute was fully supported by the union. The union has taken out a loan of £45,000 to establish a hardship fund. The executive has also issued a financial appeal to all RMT branches asking for support. Last week's march had delegations from RMT branches in Bristol and Salisbury.
Local socialists helped to initiate a Stagecoach strikers' support group, which held its first meeting last week. Members of the TGWU, Amicus and the NUT attended, together with a delegation from the postal workers' CWU.
Fran Choules, deputy branch secretary of CWU South West No 1 branch, says, 'I took some RMT badges into work, and the drivers are wearing them while doing the postal collections. 'Our branch has given £100, and we're planning a collection in the sorting office this week.'
Dave Chappell, acting chair of Devon FBU, says, 'Our branch has given a donation, and we've done a collection in Exeter fire station. In an area like Devon where wages are poor and workers are more exploited, it's crucial that when workers do take action they are supported, as it sets down a marker for other workers in the area. It's the bus workers' first strike for 30 years, and the solidarity of the strike is impressive. It was the RMT that gave us most support in our dispute, and now we're paying back some of that debt.'
Dave Parks, who helped to launch the Devon Stagecoach Strikers' Support Group, says, 'A victory for Stagecoach workers will be a victory for all low paid workers in the south west - it shows we can fight and win.'
BUS DRIVERS in York are starting a strike ballot against the same company which is involved in the Portsmouth dispute. The ballot became inevitable when First Group, the company responsible for bus services across much of Yorkshire, reverted back to a 2.25 percent inflation-based pay offer.
The drivers, members of the TGWU, are demanding a rise to £8 an hour to deal with the high living costs in York. A terraced house with two bedrooms in the city can cost up to £200,000. First Group has consistently refused to discuss the union's demand. Many First Group drivers have to do long driving hours to take home anything resembling a living wage.
First Group does not even pay drivers for compulsory rest breaks. The strike ballot closes on 12 August. First Group in Doncaster and other parts of the Yorkshire region took strike action last month.
ABOUT 350 bus workers were on one-day strike at First Buses in Portsmouth on Friday of last week. This was the third strike, and two days action are planned to coincide with the Southsea Show to have maximum impact when there are many tourists and visitors in town.
The lowest paid drivers are currently on £5.84 an hour, and they are fighting for an increase to £7.25 - a 24 percent rise. The company has offered around 4 percent. As one striker said, 'Four percent of nothing is nothing - but I'd accept 4 percent of what the managers get!'
Another striker said, 'It's the shareholders - they're the ones who get it all.' No one went in to work except managers, who were driving the few buses that ran. Managers are also being sent to other areas to scab in disputes. Although First Group operates all through Hampshire, pay and conditions can vary, which could be useful to management as it could have a divisive effect. There were 175 strikers at meetings last Wednesday.
Senior TGWU union officials had advised against further action. Wages are so low that many workers have to claim benefits to be able to manage.
'It's rubbish, we're fed up'
John Biddle, a First Group striker in Portsmouth and TGWU branch secretary, spoke to Socialist Worker:
'THE LATEST offer we had on Wednesday was the same pot of jam spread thinner. They reduced their first offer of an extra 25p an hour on Sundays and bank holidays to just 10p to fund the bit extra on our normal hourly rate. So you have to work ten hours on a Sunday to get an extra £1!
'Southampton drivers for First Group are on £9.34 for Saturdays and Sundays. They are only up the road from us, yet the company says, 'They're another part of the group.' Our lot on the lowest rate get £5.84 for every day of the week. That's the majority of the drivers. Many can't get a mortgage. Others are really struggling.
'You have to work for six years, like I did, before you get onto the higher rate of £6.24. It's rubbish, and we're fed up with it.
'When I put the details up on the notice board of the Sheffield First Group workers that went on strike recently a lot of drivers said, 'They got 9.1 percent extra to get everybody up on to nearly the same rate. That's our aspiration.'
'Lads were saying First Group claims it's got no money - they're taking the mickey out of drivers. We said two years ago when we took a two-year deal that we wanted a substantial rise this time. Even the punters realise that we are not getting the pay that we should get.'
Send messages of support and donations to Devon bus strikers c/o Lynda Quick, RMT, 149 Lower Wear Road, Countess Wear, Exeter EX2 7DD. Make cheques payable to RMT South West No 2 Branch.