By Robin Sivapalan
Two thousand five hundred Metroline drivers finally slammed the brakes on their bosses’ profiteering on 14 November, venting years of frustration in a solid strike on 96 bus routes across north-west London,
and running well into central London and Hertfordshire. Several workers at one depot spoke to Solidarity with anger about the shameless exploitation of Metroline, who run nearly 14% of a bus service that was privatised under the Tories in 1994/5 and remained so under Labour and Ken Livingstone.
Workers said that they had been forced onto the picket lines over a matter of pence, to demand that their £10.43 hourly rate be raised to £11; still some way less than workers on other London routes, and considerably less than Tube workers. Describing the stress of rising living costs in the city, they expressed solidarity with the miserable situation of other London workers on the disgraceful minimum wage; many had experienced worse as migrant workers and felt that their unity gave strength to all low paid workers across the capital at a time when city fat cats were preparing to serve themselves up 8.8 billion in Christmas bonuses. Solidarity and support from local workers was clear on the picket line, with continuous enthusiastic honking of car horns and greetings from passers-by.
One driver working 13 days in 14, with shifts of up to twelve hours, said that workers were justified in expecting Metroline (owned by Singapore based transport giant ComfortDelGro) to repay a workforce that had amassed enough surplus profit for the company to buy out both the Armchair and Thorpes bus operations in the last two years, while its workers can barely make ends meet. The overwhelming desire was to be treated as a human beings by management.
The drivers described the underhand behaviour of the company and Transport for London, scrapping nearly all bonuses in the wake of last year’s pay deal, meaning workers take home little more than they previously did. Management have been threatening workers, claiming that stoppages to the service would ultimately put all their jobs on the line, with possible punitive action from Ken Livingstone’s Transport for London!
They were ambivalent about the TGWU’s role; while the workers stood in the rain on picket lines without a union banner in sight or any T&G materials to gain public support, union officials were lobbying MPs for key worker status, an inadequate scheme which has done little to ensure health and education workers in London any real possibility of affording housing in the capital.
After members rejected two offers lasts year, the T&G accepted a third offer worth less than the previous ones and delayed strike action for over a year, also placating management in scheduling a Tuesday strike against demands from drivers for a more effective Friday stoppage. After years of notorious organisation on the buses, drivers remain sceptical of the union, but thankful that the T&G are finally doing something to defend members’ interests. Many were aware of both entrance of former general secretary Bill Morris into the House of Lords, and of the betrayal of Gate Gourmet workers by their union last year.
The overwhelming mood of the workers was one of unity, determination and pride with a strong sense of the need for rank and file workers to take the lead in insisting on further action if Metroline refuse to concede. Further strikes are planned for 20 and 27 November: the drivers will be back on the picket lines and deserve the support of all workers.