A bus drivers’ strike in north Staffordshire and south Cheshire has shown how unity can be forged between British-born and Polish workers.
Over 300 drivers struck over pay and conditions last Saturday and again on Monday of this week.
None of the workers could be named, as they feared reprisals from their bosses at First Bus.
But the T&G union members were united in their determination to strike together and win together.
One Polish driver told Socialist Worker, “I started working for First Bus a few months ago. I’d only been here about a month when I first heard that there was a possibility of strike action.
“This action is really important. I think it’s disgusting that we are forced to strike. But they pay us less here than they do in the rest of the country — it makes no sense and so we have to fight.
“The drivers here have been absolutely great to me and the rest of the Polish drivers. If I ever need any help I know I will get it.
“Even the management treat us all the same, British or Polish we all get treated badly.”
A second driver welcomed the involvement of his Polish colleagues, who were granted the right to work in Britain just over a year ago.
“The Polish drivers who have joined First Bus over the last couple of months have been absolutely brilliant,” he said.
“They have come here to earn some money, and they have been behind this strike from the start.
“There is a lot of nonsense said in the press about them coming over here and undermining our pay and conditions—as far as I’m concerned they have every right to earn a living.
“This is a rich country and we need workers. Just on the buses in this area we’re still about 50 drivers short.”
So far the action, now in its third week, has been strongly supported, with 100 drivers joining the union in the run up to the strikes.
According to Neil Salter, the regional organiser for the T&G union, strike action has been crucial in winning better conditions in the region in the past.
“Around five years ago we had to take a day of strike action over pay,” he said.
“At that time there were 15 different pay levels, now there is just one. The members here are very solid, and very angry about the way they are being treated.”
First Bus, which made profits of £112 million last year, have lost several battles with their drivers around the country over pay in the past few months.
The company pays the drivers in north Staffordshire and south Cheshire just £6.60 an hour, one of the worst rates in the country.
One of the union shop stewards who joined the strike told Socialist Worker, “First Bus say that we work in a ‘low pay area’ but that’s rubbish.
“They have just given drivers just up the road a pay rise to £8 an hour. Our gas bills have gone up 15 percent this year. So the difference in our pay is basically about saying who can afford to heat their house this winter.
“And the price of a loaf of bread is the same wherever you live.
“The company is so short of drivers that up until a couple of months ago they were using agency drivers. Agency drivers get £10 an hour, and the agency takes £3 or more an hour. But management reckon they can’t afford to pay us £8 an hour.
“The only offer that has been put on the table so far is really just juggling the money we already get.
“It would have left the drivers no better off at all. We were offered an increase in pay to £7 an hour, but only if we accepted certain conditions. They wanted to stop paying the ‘lay time’ — the time between buses.
“Sometimes you have half a shift, then two hours lay time and then the second half. If the lay time isn’t counted as working time then in reality our day goes from an eight hour day to a ten hour day.
“On top of that they wanted to attack our pensions and not give the drivers the seven months back-pay we are asking for.
“They are already clawing away at the little we do earn. Last year they attacked our pensions so we now have to pay in more and receive less when we retire.
“They have also recently begun to dock drivers’ pay if they go against company policy in any way. This can include wearing the wrong trousers or forgetting your tie, or if members of the public make complaints. If this happens you are docked 15p an hour for 28 working days.”
It is not just the drivers at First Bus that are treated appallingly. Both the engineers and the cleaners in the area are currently considering action over pay and conditions.
Cleaners are only paid the minimum wage, and even then, according to one driver, when the minimum went up a few months ago the bosses at First tried not to pay up the extra money.
A pay dispute on the buses in Wandsworth, London, is the latest in a rash of disputes across the country. For more see Bus drivers