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London bus drivers unite in historic strike action
Bus workers in Unite in London are taking historic strike action today - for one rate for the job across all 18 companies. Strikers know this might have to be just the start and are ready for a big fight, but what a start! Picket lines of 70, 100 and more, maintained all day. And the roads - gridlock before dawn.
London mayor Boris Johnson claims a third of the service is running but that's complete rubbish - reports around the picket lines are that only 10% of the service is running, if that. Public support is really high - you know you're in the vicinity of a bus garage well before you get there, from the horns and cheers.
Paula Mitchell, London Socialist Party secretary
Bus drivers in Putney garage were very pleased with the picket turnout, there were around 70 drivers on it. A few of them had joined the picket only when they arrived and saw the picket line. Normally the road outside the garage is packed with buses going out on their route but today the road has been pretty empty of buses with probably about 100 buses parked up in the garage. There are very few buses on Putney High Street.
Socialist party leaflets and TUSC leaflets (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) have been welcomed by the strikers. Comments were made that a three-day strike is needed to really bring it home to management that the Unite members are serious about winning one rate across London.
Around 30 pickets, all in good cheer, stood on the line at this Go Ahead garage. Reports of high turnouts at other depots contributed to the mood. Although there was some disappointment that more drivers were not out at Stockwell, very few services were running. Strikers saw this as a warm-up stoppage, and were looking forward to more and bigger action in the course of the dispute.
One talked about the appalling lack of break facilities he has suffered since being transferred to the number 19 route. Drivers have to eat their lunch sitting as passengers on other buses, or eat soggy sandwiches under an umbrella. Another picket showed colleagues a photo of the impressive Putney picket line and TUSC banner, leading to great interest in TUSC material. One rep took a bundle of leaflets for the canteen and another bought two copies of the Socialist to be shared around the picket line.
One worker at Leyton bus garage told us that one of the bus companies is threatening to start new bus drivers on £9 an hour and not make them eligible for a pay rise until they've worked for 10 years! Only two workers had gone into work (about 400 work out of the garage) and no buses were running. About 50 workers were on the picket line - all determined to fight until they win.
Unite LE/1111 housing branch secretary Suzanne Muna, who is standing for the vacant Unite London and Eastern national executive seat, visited the Leyton picket line. She gave solidarity greetings from her branch to the strikers on her way to a meeting of Unite's community youth workers and Not for Profit NISC.
There was a good sized picket line at Bow garage, despite the rain and cold. No buses went into central London. A few that did cross the picket line had massively shortened routes - presumably in TfL double speak that means the route is running, even if it doesn't cover most passengers!
Paul Williams, the Unite Rep at Bow garage said: "More than 50% of staff here are on top grade already, so the strike was a hard ask. But we had non-union members on the picket line, so we will recruit from this."
Pickets were angry with the different rates of pay, some talking about this being a long battle.
Pete Dickenson and Naomi Byron
Over 40 bus drivers were on the picket line cheering as every second car that drove past hooted in support. Bus drivers complained bitterly about how unfair it is that there are different pay rates for the same job.
One explained: "My manager told me I'm in the league table for the top 500 bus drivers in the country. Yet Tower is only paying me £11 an hour. I've been working as a bus driver for 11 years. This isn't work, it's slavery. We're being forced to work just to survive. We work seven days on, and then two days off. Each week we start our shifts at a different time".
"Every bus driver is going to feel this strike at the end of the week when they get their pay slips. But we've got no choice - we have to take this action to change things. That's why 99% of the 500 bus drivers who work here are taking part in the action. Don't believe the nonsense that they say about only 16% taking part".
The Unite union rep explained how he was being intimidated by management but that it is necessary to fight for equal pay across London.
Anthony Koumourou, Unite shop steward at Holloway garage, said: "The reason I am out here is to safeguard my job because the long term picture is that all the companies are going to be cutting each other's throats by reducing the salaries every time the routes come out for tender. They will introduce a new pay rate and new drivers will get the overtime on those routes because they won't pay the senior drivers.
"I don't think it's fair that two drivers can drive the same bus down the same road and one can earn £6,000 more than the other. We have three pay structures at the moment and there is nothing to stop the companies from introducing as many different pay rates as they want. All we are asking is for all the companies to sit round the table and discuss with us so there can be one rate for London. We are going to carry on until we win".
Socialist party members supported the 50 picketers outside Barking's main bus garage. The mood was good, especially when they heard other local garages were solid. Lots of people thought more action would be needed, two or three days next.
Joseph Mambuliya, Barking TUSC prospective parliamentary candidate, brought solidarity from the RMT union and spoke to the strikers about the campaign for a £10 an hour minimum wage to defeat poverty pay.
Ash Grove garage in Hackney had a lively, strong picket line at the front entrance and a second one at the back. A few pickets said they have been driving buses for many years and receive the highest rates paid by any of the bus companies, but they fully realise the necessity of a united strike of all drivers to bring the lower rates up to the same levels. They are angry that other workers doing exactly the same work are being paid less.
All the bus companies have roughly the same basic costs (fuel, garaging, new buses), they commented, so why do they have to pay different rates?
Also, if workers on higher rates move to a different bus company they may be forced onto a lower rate. Managers are dishing out 'cautions' more and more readily - including when drivers are involved in accidents that aren't their fault at all. For Arriva drivers, three cautions means a disciplinary hearing and possible dismissal, so drivers on higher rates could have to face working on a lower rate elsewhere.
One driver even received a caution for running over a watering can in the early morning dark in the depot. This kind of pressure from management has increased a lot in recent years, reducing the morale of bus workers.
They also drew attention to the fact that even the highest rates are not enough in London; it's impossible for any of them to buy a home anywhere near the Ash Grove garage. One nearby small house was seen on the market at £750,000.
Over 70 bus drivers were on two solid pickets at West Ham garage. The garage manager was monitoring the pickets yet there were drivers filling in union application forms just yards from him.
There was a determined mood and the Socialist Party leaflet was received well.
Workers counted down the seconds to 7am when they could legally blow whistles and sound vuvuzelas!
RMT members came to the picket line in solidarity with the Unite members striking.
The 40 pickets at New Cross bus garage were happy that very few buses were running. They welcomed reports that police were stopping scab vehicles in other garages from travelling with too many passengers for safety reasons.
Management seemed more concerned at getting some kind of service in the City and West End so bus passengers going in the wrong direction were out of luck. Pickets were shouting: "What do we want? More money. When do we want it? Now".
Pickets were pleased with this show of strength but knew more action might be needed. Several people were saying that striking for two days might be needed if more action is considered.
There were over 50 workers on an excellent picket line.
50 striking bus drivers gathered at Lea Interchange in Waltham Forest. Six strikers bought copies of the Socialist and seven said they want to find out more about the Socialist Party.
There was a good mood on the picket line. The shutters came down at the depot - a very good thing as there was no possibility of getting more buses out.
One driver said he'd only ever seen the shutters come down on Xmas day or when there are riots! The strike seemed very solid and it seems like the bus workers are prepared to come out again if necessary.
The strike at Uxbridge garage was rock solid. Visits were made to the picket line from trade unionists in PCS, CWU, Unison and Unite local government.
50 bus workers were on the Battersea garage picket line.
Over 20 were on the picket line at the Waterloo depot, the strike was solid there. The only activity in the depot was being done by management. The mood was good and determined. Drivers seemed well up for a long battle if necessary. As one said: "The bus companies are a cartel stitching us up behind closed doors. We need to be as together as them".
Drivers did not know about TUSC before my visit, but expressed respect for Bob Crow who was one of the founders of TUSC. It was tanking it down so I left them with a dry package of TUSC and Socialist Party material for later perusal.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 13 January 2015 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.