Cwmbran picket line 22 October Photo: Dave Reid

Cwmbran picket line 22 October Photo: Dave Reid   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Dave Reid, Socialist Party Wales

Over 200 Stagecoach bus drivers at Cwmbran, Blackwood and Brynmawr depots, members of Unite, have completed their sixth day of strike action, the first of six phases. The next strike day is due to be 29 October, unless the company gives in to the union demands for a rise to £10.50 an hour from £9.50.

The company has responded by offering £10.10 an hour, barely above the £9.50 minimum wage next year, later increased to £10.30. But even this unacceptable offer will be paid for by the drivers through cuts in breaks and sick pay, and will not be available to new entrants. All the workers understand the importance of ensuring that new entrants get the new rates and that the existing workforce is not undermined by a two-tier pay structure.

The managing director of the three depots had accused the union of demanding “fantasy wages” of £10.50 an hour, until it was revealed that his pay rose from £181,000 to £229,000 between 2019 and 2020 – a pay rise of £48,000! The only fantasy wage is being paid to the managing director.

And despite the pandemic, Stagecoach South Wales boasted a pre-tax profit of £2.1 million, up from £1.5 million in the previous year. That included £1 million government funding from the furlough.

The anger at the contempt that Stagecoach had shown to the workers’ pay claim was explained by one driver: “They want to discipline us for not being professional when they claim we’ve done something wrong, but when they decide our pay we’re ‘unskilled'”.

This corporate greed has strengthened the resolve to see the dispute through to the bitter end. Morale on the picket line has been sky-high – even when the sky opens up with torrential downpours. Hundreds of strikers have rallied at the bus depots every day.

At a rally during an Acas conciliation service negotiation music blared out in the cold autumn sunshine. Apparently Santa Claus is on strike and comrade Claus danced with the Unite flag on the road verge. This really was an all-singing, all-dancing picket line!

And all through the dispute there has been a cacophony of car horns as it seems every car driver in Cwmbran hoots their horn as they drive past the picket line.

On the first Sunday of the strike the drivers returned to work for one day and the reaction of passengers was brilliant. One regular passenger said: “I’m not getting on the bus – I just wanted to tell you that we support you all the way. You were there for us during Covid and I’m not giving Stagecoach any more money while you are on strike.”

Support from the trade union movement has been growing too. Cardiff Trades Union Council has been building support and thousands of pounds are flowing into the strike fund. GMB Stagecoach drivers at Porth and Aberdare are getting ready for action at their depots.

The support of local politicians who have visited the picket line has been appreciated by the strikers. But more important than tweets is action.

The spectacle of a multinational company making big profits by paying its local directors huge salaries to hold down the wages of its drivers has exposed the massive scam being carried out by Stagecoach and Arriva on public transport in Wales. The companies are subsidised by millions of pounds by the Welsh government, but charge exorbitant fares, pay poverty wages and make millions of pounds profit.

The Welsh government plans to introduce integrated transport systems on the South Wales and North Wales Metros. It must immediately step in, reverse the Tory privatisation of buses and renationalise them, into one train and bus company under Transport for Wales.

And this must be carried out without delay. Stagecoach and Arriva cannot be allowed to run down the bus infrastructure in the way that Arriva did on the railways in Wales as its franchise expired.

The Welsh Labour government must make it clear that ‘Slavecoach’s’ days in Wales are numbered.