Bus drivers on a London picket line, 2015. Photo: Steve Easton on Flickr Bus drivers on a London picket line, 2015. Photo: Steve Easton on Flickr

Peter Bird reports from the picket line as bus drivers employed by Abellio in south and west of the capital embark on a series of strikes to increase their pay and challenge worsening conditions 

A full 90% of bus drivers observed a strike in south and west London on Tuesday. Over 950 bus drivers employed by Abellio are striking for 10 days between now and Christmas with the possibility of additional days being added. The dispute concerns pay and working conditions.

Guy Langston, regional officer for Unite the Union, who attended the picket line at Battersea depot, said:

“Abellio bus drivers have only had £5 per hour pay increase over the last 10 years. Abellio accounts in 2012 showed that 65% of their income was spent on drivers’ wages. That figure is now 50%. They are the lowest paid drivers in London. Schedule agreements are among the worst in London. This strike is about terms and conditions.”

Talking to bus drivers two things are very clear. Firstly, they don’t go on strike easily. It’s a once in a decade event. They didn’t anticipate industrial action but the rising cost of living, low wages and an employer described as callous has led them to it. They can’t make ends meet any longer. Secondly, they take a pride in their work. My own observation at a terminus where I frequently board a bus is that they get, if they’re fortunate, eight to ten minutes, or possibly less, to inspect the bus take a rest and depart again on their return journey. This is not untypical, nor is working a 12 hour day. They are painfully aware that this pattern of work is not conducive to their own welfare or to remaining fresh and alert to best ensure the safety of their passengers. 

Their schedule often militates against the good practice of ensuring that boarding passengers are safely seated before the bus departs from stops. Many things can put them behind schedule and create the demand imposed on them that they catch up, such as road works or passengers who take longer than others to board due to immobility. So, aside from the issue of their receiving the lowest wages among London drivers, the schedules they are expected to maintain are vastly unreasonable both for them and their passengers.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Abellio is a vastly wealthy multinational company that could and should be paying its workers a fair pay increase. With workers struggling to cope with rampant inflation, Abellio’s failure to even entre into meaningful pay talks is cold hearted and callous.”

While I was at Battersea depot a couple of buses left, much to the vexation of other drivers, driven by agency staff. I am told that they are generally paid £6 an hour more than those on Abellio’s payroll.

Guy Langston also said: “Strike action will inevitably cause severe disruption for passengers across south and west London but this dispute is directly a result of Abellio’s failure to negotiate. Strike action can still be avoided if Abellio accepts its scheduling agreement has failed and enters into detailed talks with Unite to resolve the issue.”

Further strike days are scheduled for November 25 and 26, December 1,2,3,9,10,16 and 17, involving drivers at six depots: Battersea, Hayes, Southhall, Twickenham and Walworth.

Given the solidarity shown today, there is a lot of determination to win this dispute and they deserve the support of other workers and passengers alike.

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