Strike on? Maybe

Union corruption leaves bus drivers adrift, writes AJ Byrne

The fight over pay, which caused such disruption on London’s buses in August, September and October of last year, has re-ignited.

The original plan was to fight for the same wages and conditions for all busworkers across the capital. £30,000 or five percent, whichever is the greater, was the target and the union (Transport and General/Unite) claimed that pay can vary from £20,000 to £28,000, including shift allowances, bonuses and unsocial hours payments.

Other key points in the claim are:

There were a number of serious problems with this approach. Even if everyone got the £30,000, it would not mean equality, because back in 1993-94 the 11 different companies that then took over from London Transport imposed 11 different sets of wages and conditions - every new small cowboy company that won a route imposed their own set. Within companies and within individual garages new routes were won by tendering until the First/CentreWest strike of 2000, prior to which 13 different rates applied in that main garage alone. That victory led to increased militancy, which won improved pay and a gradual elimination of different rates within companies, but the cross-company disparities were never tackled.

London Transport and its successor under Ken Livingstone, Transport for London, continued to exploit these differences by the competitive tendering regime, maintaining a downward pressure on wages. In his last year in office Livingstone tightened the tendering process in an attempt to close a big gap in funding and routes have since been lost by all companies to lower tenders - often from new operators with lower rates and worse conditions. Given the centrality of competitive tendering, it seems inexplicable that the London convenors’ committee, and the Unite bureaucracy led by senior organiser Peter Kavanagh, is dead set against campaigning for its abolition.

The claim did not tackle the crucial issue of harmonising conditions. Some companies pay unsocial hours, some do not; some have good overtime and rest day rates, others pay flat rates at all times (all of them pay overtime only after the scheduled duty is completed, so a five-day, 12-hour spreadover duty would pay flat rates all the way through); and some pay for the 40-minute meal relief, but the majority do not. It stands to reason that for the £30,000 salary to have any real meaning these conditions must be harmonised: that is, the company convenors must agree on a set of conditions to be endorsed by the shop stewards and then balloted by all bus drivers across London. This work has not even begun.

Furthermore there is the question of how a London-wide deal could be struck, given that all negotiations take place on an individual company level. Kavanagh has floated the idea of a TfL committee negotiating with Unite on behalf of all companies, since TfL is the ultimate paymaster. Livingstone just ignored the idea. Current mayor Boris Johnson simply said ‘no’ and has now begun to privatise the only TfL-run company, the small East Thames Buses, which has the best conditions, including a final salary pension scheme. Surely a campaign to bring the buses back into public ownership is an absolute must, but again, seemingly, the London convenor’s committee and Kavanagh are resolutely opposed to any such campaign.

Which brings us to the current strike wave, which is apparently still ongoing. There is a dedicated website (www.londonbusworkers.com), but it was last updated on October 21, when it was announced that the strikes due the next day, which would have involved 14,000 drivers, had been called off, because “an injunction granted to Metrobus in the high court earlier this month, and the threat from all of the other companies to pursue the same course of action, has caused Unite to suspend industrial action while it seeks legal guidance”. Metrobus has only 1,000 drivers, but nonetheless the “threat” was enough to send the leaders of the other 13,000 drivers scurrying for cover. On top of that there was no official communication from the union, and drivers only discovered the action had been called off from company notices, which some militants demanded be ignored as a company ploy.

Then on December 5 Unite conducted a consultative ballot of all eight companies involved, which resulted in a renewed mandate thanks to a 75% ‘yes’ vote. So now we can apparently expect more strikes in January and February after the legally required postal ballot, which was supposed to begin on January 5. Or can we?

The reason for the fierce opposition to ending competitive tendering and to campaigning for public ownership is the corrupt relationship many convenors and ‘reps’ (this is the favoured term rather than ‘shop steward’) have with management. Convenors are on full-time secondment, as are reps in the big garages. All stewards enjoy the free weekend in the TGWU’s hotel in Eastbourne, where garage managers and senior executives involve them in ‘partnership’ programmes, often led by a professional consultant company. There they learn loyalty to the company’s ‘corporate values’ and enjoy generous and unlimited alcohol and the finest cuisine. When a strike comes, they are torn between gratitude to the company and their desire to serve the best interests of their members (or is it to get re-elected every two years?).

During this dispute convenors were told they will have to go back to driving buses. Some reps in the larger garages have already lost their full-time secondment. And there are other, no less important, favours under threat. Many convenors and stewards rely on management to deal with any militant opponents if they look like losing at election time. They simply go to the senior manager and ask them to discipline the opponent as a ‘frightener’ or sack them if that does not work. But it is difficult to expect that level of cooperation when you organise strikes against the company. And the Eastbourne spring junket must also be called into question now.

There is yet a further twist. Given the appalling corruption of Unite on the buses, members in increasing numbers have been voting with their feet and joining the RMT union. As one senior RMT leader said, “We tell them to go back and reform their own union, but they say that is impossible because they have it all sown up with the managers.” So Peter Kavanagh has a problem: if he does not deliver at least over wages many more will leave for the RMT.

Not that his company convenors are that bothered. The recognition agreement is with Unite and even if 90% joined another union in an individual garage they would still retain their privileges unless membership fell below 50% in the bargaining unit as a whole. Kavanagh himself cannot afford to be so complacent. He must defend his union as best he can by making some minimal progress at least.

Of course, not all convenors and shop stewards are corrupt (maybe the majority of the former and a large minority of the latter). But it is the corrupt ones that still call the tune in London and do not expect Unite to do anything drastic about that.

So strike on? Maybe.