For two days in November along with over 2,000 of my colleagues I withdrew my labour and went on strike for better pay. As London bus drivers working for Metroline we had seen for too long our colleagues in other bus companies in London doing the same job but getting paid more.
This sense of injustice coupled with a need for greater recognition of our role created a renewed strength and unity. As members of the T&G union we lived up to our creed and fought back.
It was the first strike action of its kind in the London bus industry this century and one of the most radical political acts many drivers had ever undertaken.
As chair of a union branch it was a privilege to hold the post during a period of such solidarity.
Holloway bus garage in north London is one of the biggest and most diverse in Britain. It’s affectionately known as the “united nations” with 550 drivers mainly drawn from Europe, Africa and Asia potentially speaking up to 44 different languages.
The workforce is tolerant and respectful and proof of how well people of such varied backgrounds can coexist peacefully and productively.
It carries within it many hidden talents and fascinating life stories – such as our vet, our engineer and our lawyer from Somalia.
As a result of such a working environment we are able provide a unique, remarkable and undervalued service as captains of those iconic red symbols of one of the most diverse cities in the world.
Reasons for these workers from the world uniting for two days deserve greater reflection and study.
However there are some broad themes worth considering. The wider backdrop is one that affects not just bus drivers but millions throughout the land – of the struggle to bridge the gap between low wages compared to increasing living costs and high house prices.
The common foe and focus was always going to be the employer, Metroline – the bus company under contract to Transport for London and a subsidiary of Singapore-based Comfort Delgro, the world’s second largest listed land transport company.
However the sense of injustice many drivers and workers feel doesn’t lie only at the door of our employer. There was another source of workers’ unity to be found in the reaction to the political and corporate business culture itself.
The strike increased an understanding among drivers of their place in this wider political environment and its relationship with the multinational business world.
Many will be familiar with working under a target based culture and the phrase “you’re not performing well enough”.
Of course London bus drivers know just how hard they work or “perform”.
Once our strike was underway, the already established counter-culture developed further. Coupled with the determination to make the strike successful and a genuine comradely spirit, there were glimpses of something different.
The tables turned for the day with power shifting to the workforce who gained a new sense of empowerment. No one could deny the tangible sense of unity and liberation in the air.
There was understandable disappointment from some drivers when we settled in December for a 5.75 percent increase on all elements of pay, as we had campaigned for 6.5 percent.
However, the fact remains we forced the company to increase their offer from an initial 3 percent.
Strike action remains a radical step for many working people, but one they are more than often prepared to take.
The times suggest we’re reaching a point in Britain where the spectre of 1979’s winter of discontent is fading as a new recognition is growing that our working culture is no longer working for the benefit of all.
With other struggles within the bus industry and elsewhere now breaking out, or on the horizon, strike action is once again set to play its part in the ongoing struggle for justice.
Paul Brandon is a London bus driver and chair of the T&G branch 1/232 at Holloway bus garage. He writes in a personal capacity.
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