There was pride and delight in the voice of the Unite union rep as he announced a ballot result last Friday evening. He detailed the overwhelming rejection at his garage of a new pay offer designed to stop a pay strike by Abellio bus drivers in south and west London.
Soon others retuned their results and together, across the six garages, it was 1,137 against the deal and just 126 for it. The union did not recommend how to vote, although some reps most certainly did speak to the members and pushed rejection.
The defiant result will continue the battle by around 1,900 bus drivers who have struck so far for 18 days since 22 November. Now more strikes are planned for Monday and Thursday this week, Wednesday and Thursday next week, and 1, 2 and 3 February.
They can’t come soon enough to build on the momentum from the rejection of the latest offer. Workers are demanding a minimum hourly rate of £20 for all drivers—a 31.4 percent pay rise for experienced drivers and a 52.8 percent rise for new drivers.
Driver Peter told Socialist Worker, “We are staying on the picket lines. Abellio pay us the lowest rate they can but our strike has always been about £20 an hour and conditions. We also want the starting rate for new drivers to rise.”
Abellio has imposed a rate that raises senior drivers’ pay to £18 an hour—an 18.2 increase. But workers rightly say it’s not enough. They are also out in solidarity with new drivers who would be on just £15.05 an hour for doing the same job. Driver and union rep Sarah Liles told Socialist Worker, “People realise they are stronger than they thought.”
She said people want to carry on striking because “we feel undervalued”. “We heard Fortnum and Mason hampers turned up for the managers at Christmas. We didn’t even get a card, and we don’t get bonuses like them.”
Backing from other workers has been central to maintaining the strike. “The amount of solidarity we’ve got is great—it keeps our strike going really well,” said Peter. “Other unions—Usdaw, the RMT, Unison and more—have visited us, some of us have visited other strikes.”
Drivers beep their horns and cheer from the window as they pass the picket lines, as do paramedics in ambulances and Go Ahead bus drivers who operate similar routes. The picket line has flags, banners and music. Many drivers say the exchange of ideas and solidarity on the picket has built strikers’ confidence and is partially responsible for the doubling of union membership.
Just 36 buses left the Walworth depot on a strike day last week. They were taken out by a small number of agency workers and managers. But only “a few of drivers are crossing the picket line” and “we’re still having a massive effect,” said one driver. Peter said the spirit on the picket line is “immense”.
“There’s such a community that’s been built since this strike kicked off two months ago,” he said. “People have got to know each other better, got to know their rights, the safety rules and more. We discuss what we want to do and how it’s going. For most people here it’s their first strike, it’s only my second after the one around the London 2012 Olympics.”
A driver in Battersea agreed, saying their picket line had become an “unofficial staff room” where people discuss and debate ideas. “We are a diverse group of people, some people you rarely see because of shift patterns, others you see all the time,” he said. “Now we’re all united and even passengers we see regularly have said they support us.”
In 2019 there were just 11 bus strikes across Britain but having suffered the Covid pandemic and low pay during a cost of living crisis, workers have launched 102 passenger transport strikes since August 2021. There’s plenty of money to pay the strikers’ claim at Abellio.
The firm raked in £356 million profit in profit in 2021. And managing director Alex Hynes trousers £334,999 a year. Pay is central to the dispute. But it’s not the only issue.
Workers also oppose cuts to overtime pay and want improvements to working schedules and breaks. And following the sacking of a union rep, they insist she’s reinstated. Peter explained that “scheduling is a big thing. Management want us to work 12-hour shifts back to back which will cause fatigue and mean more drivers will leave.”
Sarah explained how now voluntary overtime is paid at the same rate as regular shifts. She demands, “An extra pound an hour for working on a rest day.” Had drivers accepted the latest offer, Unite nationally might well have spun it as a great victory. But drivers are fighting on. And in doing so they are pointing the way for other bus workers and all those in pay strikes—fight hard and fight to win.
Escalation to show our power
Many of the strikers said last week they were “determined” to demand more strikes and stay on the picket lines if it was needed. Unite union member Mahad told Socialist Worker, “We said during talks last Thursday that if it is £18.50 an hour with worsened conditions then we would see what more we can get.”
Mahad said that throughout the dispute, the 12-hour picket lines and strikes have been the backbone of resistance. “This round of strikes was set to end on 26 January but we already called and notified the company of more strikes,” he added. During national rail strikes, the tactic of the RMT leaders has been to stop and start strikes, as well as calling them off at a moment’s notice. Mahad said, “That’s not what we were going to do.
“We couldn’t stop between strikes because we know what Abellio is capable of. If we stop and start people on the picket line will get tired, that’s what the company wants.”
It’s good that Unite listened to workers’ demands and called three more strike days without pausing. The strategy should be reflected in other transport disputes. It’s also positive that the drivers have refused overtime work and rest day work.
The bus strikes are important evidence about the best way to win over pay, conditions and all the other issues that workers face. Unite members have won some inflation-beating pay rises for bus workers, including 20 percent by 250 Stagecoach workers in Hull. Hull’s workers escalated to an all out, indefinite strike that lasted five weeks. Escalating to all out—at Abellio and elsewhere—is important in the present battles.
It also helps to create a solid foundation for the workers’ upcoming pay campaigns in 2023 and 2024—showing they’re not to be messed with. Not every group of workers is in the same position as bus workers who know there are massive labour shortages and companies competing to grab people to work for them.
But in every workplace there has to be an argument that the era of fragmented and one or two-day strikes is over. Ruthless employers will try to ride out short strikes. But it’s a very different matter when workers are ready to walk out and stay out until they have won.
When Abellio suspended Unite rep Sarah Liles, strikers were clear that they wouldn’t return to work if this was not overturned. After standing firm Sarah was reinstated with a final written warning—something the workers should be ready to continue the battle against.
Overcome by fatigue, it was alleged that Sarah fell asleep at the wheel. If that’s true, it’s a product of long and dangerous hours and unsociable shift patterns that she described to Socialist Worker at the beginning of the strike before her dismissal. In November she told Socialist Worker, “Fatigue is common. We are made to work unsociable hours that impact our family life.
“One week we could start at six in the morning, the next week at ten, and the week after at one in the afternoon. One duty pattern has five different sign-on times.” Sarah still came to the picket lines despite the victimisation against her.
Before the appeal striker Mahad said that “eight people have been reinstated previously on similar charges”. And this isn’t the first time that a rep was defended. Six months ago a former rep was involved in an “absolutely unfair” dismissal, Peter, another striker explained. “He is going through an industrial tribunal to get reinstated.”
Recently some union members have been given verbal warnings by bosses for being on picket lines. Workers should be ready to use the same determination they showed in fighting for Sarah for their other colleagues. Major bus firms that have gobbled up bus routes use victimisation of activists as a way of trying to break resistance.
But harsh attacks can also push strikers together and make them more resolute in battling the employer. Strikes have defended victimised reps in other sectors and won, such as during the Coventry bin strike when a rep was suspended. But it’s clear bosses are using sackings and suspensions more confidently to weaken strikes.
This is why any victimisations of union members during disputes across Britain have to be fought strongly. Some 150 CWU union activists employed by Royal Mail have been punished for effectively standing up for their members. Few have been reinstated.
Unions often say during strikes that action over victimisations should be put on hold until they can be raised as part of a final settlement. That’s a mistake because it can mean people feel isolated—and cases can be left dragging on for months or are never won.
Dutch state profited from low wages. Abellio was a wholly‑owned subsidary of Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the state-owned transport firm from Holland.
It was coining it in by claiming massive subsidies for running four British rail firms—East Midlands, West Midlands, Greater Anglia and Merseyrail.
Now the firm’s greedy bosses are buying out the British operation. That includes its more than 50 London bus routes.