Lines of buses remained parked in garages across London on Tuesday as over 20,000 drivers struck to demand better pay. Commuters faced delays, and tube and rail services were overcrowded. Transport for London (TfL) urged Londoners to “walk or cycle where possible” as bus services ground to a halt.
The walkout showed the collective power that workers have to win their pay dispute with the capital’s 18 bus operators and TfL. And it showed there’s an alternative to submitting to the Tories and the bosses—or waiting for Labour.
The workers, in the Unite union, are demanding an end to pay disparities where 80 different pay rates see over £3 an hour difference across the companies. Bus companies have refused to enter collective negotiations.
Mostafa, a Unite rep at Putney garage in south west London, told Socialist Worker, “We’re totally solid. Bosses will be afraid of the impact we are having.”
Picket lines were huge, noisy and multicultural. At Abellio’s Fulwell garage in Twickenham some 60 pickets chanted “United we stand, let’s strike together” in Polish, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Somali and English.
Drivers blocked scab buses and desperate bosses even called police. The lively pickets demonstrate the overwhelming support among drivers for the walkout. But they also prove the perfect antidote to the anti-migrant racism of the likes of Ukip.
Mostafa explained that many underlying reasons other than pay made the strike so well supported.
“Drivers face bullying managers, long hours and unfair treatment. It’s all about profits rather than providing a public service,” he said.
Right wingers attacked the turnout for the strike ballot, with the Tories using the opportunity to renew calls to curb the right to strike. They say London is being held to ransom by a militant minority. Yet even TfL and Tory mayor Boris Johnson could only try and claim that a third of bus services were running. In fact TfL claimed just 44 out of 673 bus routes ran a normal service.
The dispute has been years in the making. Companies have driven down pay to squeeze more profit from the public subsidy that TfL gives for running bus routes. This has created a two-tier workforce.
As pay stagnates, the cost of living continues to rise.
“It’s about time!” said Jay, a driver for Tower Transit in north west London. “Over 20,000 drivers in London are out for equality... There’s only one winner with inequality and that’s the bosses. This is the first time I’ve seen a collective strike across London.”
Westbourne Park driver Patrick told Socialist Worker, “I feel like I’ve got a big family —that’s a powerful feeling.”
Mike Weston, TfL’s director of buses, justified unequal pay by insisting that “bus drivers have different skills and experience”.
Mostafa said this was “nonsense”. He said, “We all do the same training for the same job—it’s the same skills that are required... The companies are just cutting back to save money.”
The bus operators’ latest accounts show combined profits of £172 million, with directors pocketing £7.24 million a year. That’s public money that could be invested in the bus service. It’s money that could bring down fares and raise pay so that drivers get the same rate across the city.
Bus drivers have the power to win this dispute, but Unite now needs to escalate the strikes. Tower Transit rep Hanafi told Socialist Worker that union organisation is crucial to beating the bosses.
He said, “If you don’t fight for it, you can’t win it.
“They are never going to hand it on a plate to us—that’s why we’ve all got to back each other up now.”
Some workers’ names have been changed.