london busworkers: olympic 500 – phoney war or wages battle?

First published in Solidarity Forever, paper of London Regional Committee IWW(IWGB), which comprises the London Busworkers Branch (IU IU530)

The union Unite has raised the profile of the campaign to secure a £500 bonus payment for the 28,000 bus workers in London. Leaflets, posters and even executive members have appeared in some garages. The demand for the bonus is just. The increased revenue the bus companies will make during the Olympics will more than cover the cost of a bonus in recognition of the even more stress and demands placed on bus workers. However, this issue raises far wider questions. The campaign has placed on the agenda the more important issue of the steady deterioration of bus workers wages and working conditions.

London Busworkers are not stupid. The call for a one off bonus cannot conceal the fact that for years the employers have been on the offensive whilst the largest union on buses has put up very little resistance. Everyone knows that pay and conditions compared to other transport workers, especially on the tube, have grown worse. A number of studies comparing bus drivers’ salaries have shown a significant deterioration in real wages between 2008 and 2012. The achievement of the Olympic bonus will be great, but once the Olympics are over the situation will be as bad as before the games.

The Olympic 500 campaign says that bus workers should be treated the same as other transport workers. The question is why is it the train drivers union ASLEF can get a deal for a £1000 Olympic Bonus on the tube? Why have RMT secured a bonus of up to £2,500 for workers on the Docklands Light Railway, £500 for Network Rail and £600 on London Overground? The employers ‘respect’ these unions because they have repeatedly stood up for their members. It is a different story on the buses.

When RMT reps Eamonn Lynch and Arwyn Thomas were sacked RMT responded with industrial and legal action to get the victimised reps reinstated. In contrast, when Abdul Omer Mohsin the Unite convenor on Sovereign was victimised in March 2010, Unite refused to hold a strike ballot despite workplace votes supporting action. Workers have paid a high price for such retreats; employers see them as a green light to press ahead with attacks. Since the London-wide strike on pay in 2008 was called off, there has been year-on-year pay deals that have been beneath inflation or amounted to a pay freeze – that is pay cuts in real terms.

The sacked Sovereign convenor had negotiated a pay deal on parity with London United that would have seen a £4,000 per annum increase over the following years. After he was dismissed, Unite Regional Industrial Officer Wayne King agreed to the annulment of the deal in April 2010. When Sovereign drivers voted in a postal ballot to strike against the 2011 pay offer King refused to announce or implement the ballot result due on 27 December 2011. At Metroline the same month the Boxing Day pay deal saw drivers suffer a 28.2% pay cut compared to what they were paid in Boxing Day in 2010.

Meanwhile workers are constantly divided into different terms and conditions. Metroline imposed two-year temporary contracts on new starters from 1 January 2012. with worse terms than existing employees. Now management will seek to push terms down to the lower level and squeeze out workers on better pay and conditions. Management just ignored the recognised union, who withheld this information. No wonder Jaspal Singh CEO of Metroline can boast of the ‘close and supportive working relationship with UNITE the Union’. Similarly, East London drivers have lost nearly £3000 pa in wages, more for new entrants. Along with a rash of imposed changes to their conditions which lead to more work for less money.

RMT have refused to accept the Olympic Bonus offered by London Underground because management want to link it to worsening the conditions of tube-workers. UNITE refuse to link improving workers conditions to the campaign for a bonus!

At the UNITE London bus workers conference in February a leading official said of Olympic 500 – ‘if we don’t get this right we are in trouble’. It is worrying that such officials present the case for the bonus as one of an apparatus interested in self-preservation instead of promoting members interests. Now the same bureaucrats who oversaw years of degradation of conditions are declaring ‘London’s bus workers have been treated as second-citizens for too long.’

Whatever the motives of UNITE bureaucrats if they are prepared to launch a fight for a bonus then it is to be welcomed. However, IWW says, do not take bus workers for fools. If UNITE is serious about taking on a well-organised block of bus companies, TfL and the government then it should stop attacking other unions and support a united campaign run from the bottom up with workers full participation.

Furthermore, what is most important is not just a one-off-bonus, but the desperate need for a London wide wage campaign, around a comprehensive claim for what is necessary to lead a half-decent life. To achieve this means recognising we cannot rely on stooges and bureaucrats, we can no longer continue on the same old way; we cannot put off the task of building an effective independent union that can stand up for bus workers interests.