Bus workers walk out over pay freeze

Striking bus workers on picket line in Bow Photo: Matt

Striking bus workers on picket line in Bow Photo: Socialist Worker

Residents in East London faced travel chaos on Monday when bus drivers staged a 24-hour strike.

Drivers at the East London Bus Company on more than 700 routes around East London and the City walked out at 3am on Monday morning for 24 hours. Day and night buses originating from Barking, Bow, Leyton, Romford, Upton Park and West Ham were affected.

Passengers around Tower Hamlets faced severe disruptions to their journey, with many forced to take tube trains wherever possible and walk the rest of the way.

“We’ve been waiting here for half an hour. People are taking tubes and walking. Now that the weather is very cold, people will suffer,” said Vineet Sharma, a 28-year-old MBA student.

Another commuter, Alfie Smith, from Mile End, said: “I’ve just bought a bus pass. I had to walk for ages this morning and nobody knew what was going on.”

The strike came after a breakdown in talks between the company and Unite last Thursday, following a dispute over pay. Bus drivers believe there is a significant disparity in wages between drivers of London’s 19 different bus companies and have called for a London-wide wage to be introduced. The company has said costs have to be cut during the recession.

Bus routes in the capital are owned by TfL, but leased to bus companies under a tendering system. Differences in wages between companies can be as much as £90 per week. In recession conditions, bus companies miss out tenders, often resulting in redundancies or wage cuts.

Mohammad Amin-Shahzad, a bus driver from Newbury Park, said: “The average wage is £400-500 per week. Some companies try to offer bonuses or benefits, but this company only offers wages. Other companies pay for break time as well, but we have to sign on and sign off, so we’re not getting break time.”

Allen Staines, a bus driver operating more than five routes out of Bow bus garage, believes TfL is to blame for pay: “They are the paymasters. What we’re after is parity,” he said.

He also blamed TfL for a flawed and inequitable tendering system, saying: “The sole responsibility is TfL’s. We’d like to abolish the tendering system completely.”

Bus drivers are proposing to hold discussions around the tendering process, with a view to either devising a fairer system or else streamlining the current one, so that workers can negotiate with TfL for a London-wide wage.

There is also a belief that bus companies and TfL are unwilling to co-operate with driver demands and are equally closed off to suggestions surrounding alternatives.

“Before, bus companies were prepared to sit down and negotiate. Certain things they still negotiate on, but they are now arbitrarily making decisions without sitting down and consulting. Basically, it’s the workers saying we’ve had enough,” Mr Staines added.

A statement released by TfL, however, places responsibility on bus companies for setting pay. “Bus drivers are employed by private bus companies and as such, pay and conditions are set by them. We are disappointed that Unite and East London Buses have failed to resolve their differences and regret the disruption caused to Londoners as a result,” it said.

Unite said it was pleased with the outcome of the strike. Spokesman John Griffiths said: “The action from the union’s perspective was successful. East London Bus Group have not attempted to contact us.”

Meetings between bus drivers and Unite were scheduled to take place later this week. It is not yet clear whether further strike action is planned.

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