Bus strikers in 2012. Photo: Pete Murray Bus strikers in 2012. Photo: Pete Murray

London bus driver and senior Unite rep Preston Tabois spoke to Counterfire’s Dan Poulton about the London-wide strike and its wider context

London bus drivers will be striking tomorrow over pay disparity. What is the background to this action?

This is something that has been happening ever since Margert Thatcher privatised the bus industry. The sector has been fragmented into between 18-21 companies. In reality there are only 9 or 10 different owners. For, example my company, Ariva London North and South are registered as two separate companies but have same managing directors, the same HQ and the like. Metroline operates that way. Different companies means different pay deals. Over the years this has got worse and worse. If we were to take the two extremes we’d probably be looking at maybe as much as £6-8 difference per hour.

Across London it’s somewhere between £3 to £4 pounds an hour on average. Bus routes come up for tender every couple of years. When livingston was Mayor of London he encouraged contracts to be based on quality not just on the cheapest bidder. With Boris the emphasis is based upun the lowest bidder. This also affects people’s pensions. Over 20 years I could work for five different companies and end up with five different pensions, all not adding up to very much. No one’s taking these sorts of things into consideration, with companies closing down final salary pensions, taking full advantage of the government’s scheme. They shut down the Money-Purchase Pension and went to the new government compulsory pensions standard which was lower than the pension that they had before. The government didn’t say you had to make the pension lower but the companies took advantage of it. They want to increase their profit margins. Every time the bosses sit down in a room and we say we need a better deal they tell us TFL’s ‘contract price adjustments’ will only give them a tiny return. They tell us they are not making enough of a profit to raise our pay. We’ve got to a stage where we’re fed up- this is the most successful era of London busses ever in terms of passenger numbers, the amount of journeys and so forth and now we want to be rewarded for our labour.

What’s the solution to tacking pay disparity?

We believe that the only way we are going to get a better deal and a fairer deal is to have London-wide standards that, regardless of what company you work for, you know what you are going to get for your pension and wage. Here’s the problem: every time the governor wants to get an increase in his profit he comes after my wage. My wage seems to be the biggest variable. Their petrol costs what it costs, their busses cost what they cost but it seems like they can always do something with my wage. When they get upset that we’ve earned a bit of a penny they’ll introduce a new starter rate. This is a constant battle. With new starter rates come a threat to our members and our jobs. This London-wide campaign is very simple. It’s about having a London forum. We want to negotiate as London in terms of our pay structure and in terms of the amount. If they’re going to bid on contracts they should bid on their own money, not on my wages.

Is the aim to get all the bosses into the same room to negotiate?

The union has sent out letters asking the companies to join in a london-wide, sector-wide forum. They’ve declined the request. Even though all these companies do exactly this in a tendering system in Europe. As workers we are very aware that there’s a forum called the Bus Operators Forum. It’s full of Managing Directors. So they can all get together to discuss how they’re going to do us over but they won’t get together to say “let’s make a fair package”. But it’s about their profit margins. What do companies ever want but to increase their profits? They’ve been taking it out of the driver’s wages for the last 30 years.

The mainstream press are attempting to lay blame for the strikes at the feet of the workers…

We did a survey where around 70 percent of the public said that London drivers should all earn similar wages. There is support there. Most of them thought that we all work for the same company, that’s the laugh of it. From my own personal point of view, who feeds my family? I do. We’ve all got to do what we believe is right. There is nothing here that troubles my conscience. I’m sorry for your inconvenience but talk to your representative in parliament, tell them to get people round the negotiating table.

What do you make of the Tories’ election pledge to curb strike mandates in the public sector?

The Tories are going to take this opportunity to make more anti-trade union laws. Supposedly we’re meant to live in a free land. Wasn’t our Prime Minister in France recently saying ‘we are all Charlie’? Yet he wants to take away the very freedoms he crows to defend from his own citizens and workforce. Why not make it so that we can get maximum turnouts? Let’s get rid of postal ballots for strike action, let’s have workplace ballots or let’s have electronic ballots. But they’re not open to that idea because they know postal ballots always have a low turnout. I wouldn’t mind but I’m working under a Mayor who suggests this who got in with the votes of only 15 percent of the London electorate in an election where the turnout was something like 30 percent. So what’s his legitimacy for even being Mayor? If I haven’t got a mandate then he certainly doesn’t have a mandate.

What’s next and how can people support the stikes?

Get down to your local garage. You can find out your nearest on the internet and your support will be welcome. What I’m hoping to get out of tomorrow is managing directors wanting to sit down and talk with us in the same room. That’s the hope, but I do believe it will take more than one set of actions which means we will probably have to continue this moving forwards, but it has to start somewhere. I’m very hopeful that it will be a successful strike.

Does this situation relate to the wider austerity context?

Without a shadow of a doubt. This is part of a government agenda to bring public services down to 1930s levels. The people responsible for this give a damn that people get to work to make money but they don’t give a damn how they get there. This is all part of the austerity package which by now is a con trick. Banks have paid back money and so forth but the truth is that we’re just another part of the neoliberal Tory agenda to keep the poor poor.

There’s a redistribution of wealth upwards so we’re part of that con trick of ‘trickle up’ instead of ‘trickle down’. In my personal view this strike is part of saying ‘no more to austerity.’ We have workers who couldn’t get into work if their car broke down because they’re having to move further and further out of London. These are people who are starting at 3 or 4 in the morning. We have been priced out of the housing market and there’s little or no chance of us getting any support or social housing. The London bus driver has been hit massively by the austerity programme implemented by this government since 2010.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.

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