By Amanda Logan
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 330

Standing up room only

This article is over 13 years, 6 months old
Thousands of bus workers across London have been part of a defiant fight against the privatised bus companies.
Issue 330

The roots of the militancy can be traced back to November 2006 when Metroline drivers took on the employers and won after two days of strike action. It proved that drivers didn’t need to be afraid of standing up to their employers. It was like a burst of fresh air that was long overdue.

Privatisation of the buses and the ensuing competition between companies to win bus routes had weakened the union. It led to a “race to the bottom” and the losers were the drivers. The union had to work with individual bus companies, resulting in today’s massive discrepancies in pay and conditions across London.

After we took strike action in 2006 nobody was really sure what would happen. Would it just be a flash in the pan? But it got Unite sitting up and taking notice of its members. We had always been seen as the poor relatives of the London Underground workers and their union, the RMT. This led to Unite reconvening the London Bus Conference in 2007. Strictly speaking, this was for branch reps and chairs, but union activists were encouraged to take part. I jumped at the chance to go when asked by our rep at Cricklewood.

It was a real eye opener as I’m quite new to the bus industry. In my service of just over seven years I’d never seen first hand the machinations of the union. There were drivers of all ages, all nationalities, and all of us had something to say. It was exciting and very militant. As a socialist, trade unionist and bus worker, it finally felt like I was among people who wanted to take on the bosses and shout that enough is enough!

Plans began to develop as the conference met regularly. We demanded a united front across London to confront the greedy companies and the body responsible, Transport for London. These companies had it their way for the last 15 years – but not any more. If the bus operators could get together and hammer out rubbish pay deals then the bus drivers and their union could do the same for a better deal.

Because of anti-union laws the union has to be in dispute with each company individually, but that did not stop us from coordinating the same strike days. The claims on pay, working hours and conditions were the same across all companies and went in within days of each other.

We knew that our show of solidarity would not be welcomed by the employers – bus workers standing up for their pay and conditions? They can’t be serious! In August 2007 we had a demonstration to City Hall about the lack of toilet facilities for drivers. It may seem a strange choice for a demo, but we wanted it to gain publicity and send a message that we meant business.

In 2008 we put in a claim for a 5 percent rise or £30,000, whichever is greater. Such negotiations can drag on for months. The later in the year a settlement is, then there is more back pay and an increased likelihood of a pay deal being accepted. Bus workers were going to rewrite the format for 2008. Unite produced campaign posters for garages. Rank and file involvement was needed for it to be a success. An indicative ballot returned a 95 percent vote for united strike action.

This time First Bus group led the charge, going on a 24-hour strike in late August. Two weeks later they followed this up with a 48-hour strike. For those of us on the sidelines, this was frustrating. We wanted to be out there with them!

On 10 October Metroline drivers staged a 24 hour strike with First. The atmosphere on the picket line was as good as I remembered from 2006. We had food, drinks and a real party feel. Even car drivers were honking their support! But our united strike action planned for 22 October suffered a setback. The bus operating companies got organised and threatened an injunction to prevent it. It is imperative that we do not allow these companies to dictate the terms to us, 20,000 London bus drivers who have voted overwhelmingly for coordinated strike action.

Rank and file members will need to keep up pressure on the Unite leadership. We have launched our rank and file paper, the Busworker, to get our voices heard, and bus workers across the city are raising the argument that public transport should come under public ownership. The struggle will continue.

Amanda Logan is a bus driver in London

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