Two Comments on Recent Bus Strikes in the UK

A Week on the Buses...

British strikes are very much like British buses. You hang around for ages for one to turn up, then three arrive, you turn away for a minute to sort out your change but when you look up, they’ve all disappeared!

This scenario will have been extremely familiar to bus passengers in the West Midlands over the last week. Not wishing to be left high and dry by the current strike wave crashing over Britain, three thousand plus National Express (NX) drivers turned off their engines on Monday 20 March to start an indefinite strike. This was the first bus strike in the region for thirty years and as NX provides 1,600 services across the West Midlands (this is a huge area covering Birmingham, the Black Country, Coventry, and Wolverhampton) its impact on NX’s thousands of daily passengers wasn’t hard to predict. With only skeleton services to local hospitals running, thousands had to find alternative routes, not easy in such a sprawling region where there are often few alternatives.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the current state of the economy will understand why drivers voted in favour of what was, let’s be honest, a really ballsy move by the union Unite. Putting aside NX’s pre-tax profits of £146 million in 2022 for a moment, with salaries falling in real terms by 6% between 2018-2021, an initial offer of 11% (plus a 2.3% one-off payment) increased to 14.3% and serious concerns over their safety and terms and conditions, drivers had clearly had enough of NX’s grandstanding with 71%, down from 96% in the first ballot, rejecting the improved offer in a second ballot in favour of action.

It didn’t take long for the dispute to turn bitter. Early in the week there were accusations of attempted union busting by NX, intimidation at picket lines, claims prioritised buses were prevented from leaving depots, with the police being called out at least once. This jarred strongly with social media posts of pickets dancing and laughing but images of workers expressing solidarity with each other are less newsworthy, aren’t they? NX issued a ‘do not travel unless necessary’ warning and even Andy Street, West Midlands Mayor, emerged from his bunker to urge drivers, ‘to do a deal’. Just like health workers, drivers who had previously been hailed as ‘heroes’ for keeping services running during lockdown were being vilified for effectively, ‘holding the city to ransom’.

But just like the Mayfly the life cycle of an action-packed British strike is often brief. News of a fresh ballot, to accept an improved offer of a 16.2% increase on the base rate for all current drivers plus improved conditions, circulated on Thursday/Friday and by Sunday, the local Sunday Mercury’s front page heralded, ‘It’s Over!’. Even if rumours of drivers receiving a full day’s strike pay for three hours picketing are true, it would be hard to criticise the drivers for accepting the offer, no one can afford to be on strike for long at the moment, and to quote Unite, the strike ended with a victory. But it is only a victory of sorts and whatever the writers at the Sunday Mercury might think, given the state of capital, it’s far from over.

Drivers might find themselves back on the picket line sooner than they would like but the last week, like other recent strikes, has affirmed a few things some of us have been talking about for a while. Strikes like this, despite the bosses oft repeated claims that the working class has been defeated, has disappeared or is now merely another ‘identity’, dispel the myth that the working class is no longer the revolutionary force in society. Workers, not influencers or entrepreneurs, ‘make’ the world work. They make things, and people, move, or not, and when they express solidarity across the barriers promoted by capital, for example the cultural and religious differences present amongst the multi-ethnic NX workforce could not be used to divide them, they can challenge the bosses and ‘win’. And for that I’ll be thanking my driver on my next trip into town.

But to truly win workers need to draw the political lessons of these strikes. No matter how many %s our wages increase we will still be at the mercy of capital and its wars. We need to overthrow it and take charge of our own destinies, which will ultimately mean challenging the unions as well as the bosses, but who knows what’s going to happen next week? A return of the wildcat and walkouts? To misquote Lenin, ‘There are weeks where nothing happens; and there are days where weeks happen’.

A worker in Birmingham
26 March 2023

Post-Script by a CWO Comrade Working on the Buses...

To give some wider context to this struggle and also to understand why bus drivers are currently in such a strong bargaining position, with many bus depots having double-digit pay rises without taking industrial action, you have to look at the problems bus operators are having with staffing. There has always been a problem for bus operators with keeping new drivers, because of the poor conditions of the job with long days, unsociable hours, and low pay. This was exacerbated during the pandemic; where being on the front line of Covid, hundreds of bus drivers died. Simultaneously many bus operators walked out of pay talks because of the pandemic, even though due to government subsidies the bus operators raked in huge profits, sometimes as much as 80% higher than before the pandemic. The response to this by Unite, the largest union in the industry, was to set up the Bus Workers’ Combine, which is an attempt to coordinate the struggle for improved pay and conditions across different depots. Different groups of workers uniting their struggles is incredibly important, and is our best chance of success, but how successful the Bus Workers’ Combine will be, and how much it will actually affect the industrial action on the buses, is yet to be seen.

The struggle of National Express drivers in the West Midlands isn’t the only recent strike by Unite, another was the strike at Abellio in London, a successful strike where the workers won an 18% pay increase, as well as increased pay rates for overtime, Saturday/Sunday working, and the reinstatement of one of their union reps. Where this strike contrasts with the strike at National Express, is how Unite tried to sabotage it. Unite called off a 12-week strike to attempt to impose a below-inflation pay deal of 13.5% that was rejected by the drivers in a ballot on January 26; days later they sent the workers an online survey on the same deal, described as a consultative ballot, and from the results would declare “Unite members have voted to accept the employers offer”, even though consultative ballots are not legally binding. They would then refuse to disclose how many drivers voted and by what percentage they supposedly voted for it. But the workers escalated industrial action in the face of threats by Abellio and sabotage by Unite, and went on to win their struggle with a significantly better offer. This is a reminder that any struggle is only as strong as the active participation of workers on the ground, ready to organise their own tactics and strategy.

Thursday, April 6, 2023