“Sort out buses – and give drivers a fair deal”

One of the best ways to cut down on exhaust emissions in any city is to provide a viable alternative to individual transportation – i.e. decent, joined-up bus services that are free for all to use. The worst way, and the path that Leicester City Council is choosing to take, is to punish workers by forcing them to pay £550 a year for the privilege of parking at their workplaces – even while there is no alternative. If this seems wrongheaded, then prepare for this… Leicester’s Labour Council are also planning on applying this charge to bus drivers who, out of obvious necessity, drive to work at the four bus depots based within our city!?

Clearly, what is needed is for the nation’s public transport infrastructure to be nationalised and run democratically by workers’ and users for need, not private profit. This may seem a long way off right now, but if the climate emergency is to be properly tackled, the question of ownership is key. So, we need to ask what can be done to take us in this direction. A key step is to support transport workers in waging a struggle against their employers, both to improve their own conditions but also to increase their confidence in demanding change.

As it stands in Leicester, our bus drivers remain underpaid and overworked, a trend that is replicated across most of the country. That is why last October, Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite the union, announced that she will be bringing together bus union reps from across the Britain and Ireland to develop a comprehensive battle plan to fight back against the constant attacks on jobs in the industry. As she put it:

“The bus industry provides work for around 250,000 people but far too many of them are on low pay, long hours and under tremendous pressure. Our members have had enough. Some drivers aren’t even getting £10 an hour but are on the road for long hours and have no decent breaks or even basic facilities. It’s a disgrace. These are key workers who literally kept us moving during the Covid crisis – dozens of whom paid with their lives. Small wonder that we are now receiving reports of driver shortages in the industry as these workers vote with their feet and move onto other industries.”

Looking at the national picture, what is becoming clear is that bus workers are increasingly fighting back. For example, just focusing on Arriva: when 2,000 Unite members across Liverpool, Manchester and the north west of England were successfully balloted for strike action last October, Arriva North West came back with an improved pay offer of 3% which the union members accepted. 400 Unite members working for Arriva Cymru then took strike action from 14 November to 18 November 2021 which brought their bosses back to the table and forced their employers to pay them an hourly rate of £12 an hour.

Related pay disputes have been successfully resolved in other areas closer to Leicester. In January more than 400 Nottingham bus drivers employed by the council-owned Nottingham City Transport (NCT) threatened to take strike action and without having to lift a finger saw their pay rise between 8.3 per cent and 9.3 per cent, with the top rate of pay rising to £13.10 an hour. While last November more than 50 Loughborough Kinchbus drivers voted to call off a threatened strike to accept a pay offer that meant that drivers with less than six months service received an 8.5 per cent pay rise, while drivers with more than six months service received a 5.3 per cent increase.

Yet bus drivers deserve more than £13 an hour, and a base rate of £15 an hour should be considered a bare minimum for all workers, especially now that inflation is running at 7.5%. If the bus companies say they cannot afford such pay, then we need to organise to stand in solidarity with bus workers to force their greedy bosses to share their profits out with their drivers, and fight to nationalise our public transport infrastructure so it can be run properly and provide a viable alternative to individual transportation. Only such united action has the potential to take on the real polluters, the capitalist class.

Shorter version of letter published in Leicester Mercury (March 3)

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