London bus workers' victory is bittersweet

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2012 - 2:41

The latest circular to Unite bus workers tells us the fact that, “on 22 June thousands of Unite bus workers came together in a historic act of unity”.

It says that “every bus operator in London was forced to negotiate in one room with Unite for the first time” and “over two thousand new members joining since the start of the campaign” and “how can anyone say this isn’t a total victory?”

It is true that from zero offered at the beginning this represents a victory, but a very minor and limited victory. It was achieved by strike action and can be built upon. But this is only a small part of the story. 29% voted against this deal because it is for £27.50 per completed duty, amounting to a maximum of £577 before tax. But those off sick, on holidays, or having rest days will lose out.

And there is no mention of the use of court injunctions during this dispute, granted against three companies by anti-working class judges (are there any other kind?) on the most spurious grounds. Before that last day’s strike (Thursday 5 July) was called off, seven more companies had applied for injunctions.

There was no question of Unite defying these laws, which declared illegal a 96.7% vote for strike action in Metroline, for instance.

Until these laws are defied in a mass way and the laws repealed as a consequence, we will see the democratic right to strike effectively abolished by these injunctions.

The dispute was also correctly seen by many drivers as a diversion from the central attacks on bus drivers over the last three years, since the abandonment by Unite of the equal pay campaign in late 2008.

Since then, wage settlements have been below inflation for all drivers. The two-tier workforce has been introduced by the companies across London without even a token show of opposition from Unite. This has escalated recently; for instance Metroline introduced its new starter rates on 1 January 2012 after losing the 266 route to FirstBus without even bothering to consult the union. That amounts to effective de-recognition.

And because there is now such a two-tier workforce, it is obviously in the best interests of all companies to get rid of the higher-paid “senior” staff, so the rate of disciplinaries and sackings has enormously increased, with final written warnings sent out for brushing another bus’s mirror and sackings for three revenue reports of missed passes of passengers who could have boarded by the back door.

A strike during the Olympics on the above might have won us back all we lost in recent years. And this is what makes this Olympics bonus “total victory” such a bittersweet pill to swallow. Drivers all across London know that Unite could have done so much better by its members on the issues that really matter if they chose to fight on them.

In July 2008 Unite Regional Secretary Peter Kavanagh said: “If we don’t get parity across London by the time the Olympics starts, no one will get to the starting line”. Not only have we not got that across London, we do not have it within individual garages themselves. At Arriva The Shires, based in Watford, they pay £7.80 per hour for starters.

Unless the rank and file can rally against the bureaucracy, that is where this race to the bottom that they all condemned so vociferously in 2008 (but are now totally silent on) will get us.

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