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London buses: 80 different rates – one solid strike

By Bernie McAdam

14 January

On 13 January over 20,000 London striking bus drivers in Unite paralysed services. Pickets were held outside every bus garage in the capital. Boris Johnson’s claim that a third of the service was running is rubbish. Only one in 10 routes were active, if you can call one bus every 20 minutes “active”.

Many, if not most picket lines had between 50 and 100 members on them, blowing horns and waving red flags. At Camberwell, drivers even held an impromptu rave, which was recorded and tweeted far and wide. The mood was one of exhilaration, members remembering the successful Olympic strike of 2012, but also keen to restart the battle for equal pay which began back in 2008.

The strike was caused by a refusal of bus operators to negotiate an end to the grossly unfair pay disparities across London’s 18 bus companies. Unite is fighting for one pay scale and one set of terms and conditions for all bus workers.

There are over eighty different pay rates covering London’s bus drivers, doing the same job, even driving the same route, for different rates of pay. As Unite regional officer Wayne King put it, “Bus passengers pay the same fare, so why shouldn’t bus drivers be paid the same rate?”

Privatisation

The root of the problem lies in the privatisation of London buses back in 1994-95. Since then we have seen a marked deterioration in drivers’ pay, terms and conditions. There have been effective pay cuts, as minuscule rises do not match inflation. Management bullying is at record levels, as written warnings are tossed around at whim.

Huge differences in pay have inevitably opened up across the different companies. New drivers can start on anything from £9.30 to £12.34 per hour, depending on the company. No wonder bus workers voted for strike action by 85 per cent!

The latest accounts for the capital’s bus operators show the companies making combined profits of £171.7 million, with directors’ pay totalling £7.24 million a year. These profits and perks are explained by the ability of the bosses to drive down wages in a race to the bottom.

No Backtracking

The strike was a fantastic response to years of divide and rule by the bosses. But many on the picket lines recognized that one day will not be enough. If the bus operators do not open up talks, then a two day strike may well be on the cards.

But even with negotiations there is no guarantee of winning a single pay scale for all bus drivers, let alone a substantial pay rise. Drivers need to force their leaders to call an all-out indefinite strike, and not to be deflected by more “talks” so often used by the bosses (and union officials) as a means of dissipating action, rather than winning key demands.

If Unite leaders fail to escalate the action or doing a rotten deal, then mass garage meetings should take over the running of this dispute, deciding on action themselves and developing a strategy for victory. Bus drivers can’t afford to lose this battle. A victory on the pay scale would provide the confidence to launch action for better pay and, most important of all, to nationalise all the bus companies and put them under workers’ control.

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