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London bus strike suspended - now prepare for more action
Rob Williams, Socialist Party industrial organiser
After a meeting of London bus reps on 11 February that discussed 'where next?' in a dispute that has seen over 20,000 bus workers take two strike days, their union Unite suspended the action planned for 13 and 16 February.
The bus workers want sector-wide negotiations across all 18 bus operators, a crucial step towards closing and eliminating the scandalous pay differentials that mean some bus drivers are paid £5 an hour less than others.
This idea of equalising busworkers up to the best pay, terms and conditions has lifted the horizons of one of Britain's most diverse, multicultural workforces.
On the first strike - 13 January - even Transport for London (TfL) eventually acknowledged that only one tenth of buses were on the road.
Despite TfL pulling out all the stops on the second strike, 5 February, the bulk of the service was unable to be run.
Following years, if not decades, of weaker bus garage union organisation, the sight and sounds of picket lines of up to 100 drivers showed the potential to win big concessions off the employers.
In 2012, Unite was able to secure a £500 Olympic bonus after one day of action. But the current dispute, demanding permanent gains for drivers across the capital, was always going to be a stiffer test and require more strike days.
There are dangers to pausing the action as momentum can be lost and management can be emboldened. Therefore, the message must be sent that this dispute is still very much on, with strikes ready to be called if the employers don't move.
The suspension should be used to discuss more with the workforce about why the dispute is important for all drivers - whatever rate they are on - as well as to strengthen union organisation within garages. Doing so can build workers' confidence for the necessary further strikes.
The union should systematically call meetings in every garage. Unite has to commit major resources, both human and financial, into this campaign.
The two days of strikes have shaken the employers and TfL in particular. Unite believes that TfL has been actively involved in trying to scupper talks with the union, despite its public comments about neutrality.
The potential power of London bus drivers is immense, particularly if all bus workers stay united and strike together.
These workers have everything to gain from this struggle. Even if it takes a number of strike days, every pound extra on their hourly rate is there for the next hour, week, month and year.
This dispute has raised again the need for the 18 bus companies to be renationalised to end once and for all the bosses' 'divide and rule' that fosters pay inequality.
Unite has just donated £1.5 million to the Labour party's election campaign, with more to come. But bus workers will not see bus renationalisation in Labour's manifesto (whereas it is in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition's manifesto).
But surely the very least the workers should expect for the union's money is a commitment from Labour that it will force the bus companies to talk collectively to Unite? Making this commitment now, weeks before an election, would add huge pressure on TfL and the bus companies.
The Socialist Party and the National Shop Stewards Network, like many thousands of other union activists and the majority of the travelling public, will continue to stand with the drivers and their union as they look to defeat TfL and the cartel of bus companies. Solidarity with the bus workers!
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 13 February 2015 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.