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2012 London bus strike victory showed potential for militant union fightback
A London bus driver
A year ago - on Friday 22 June 2012 - London bus workers held a successful one-day strike across the capital. Big, lively, noisy picket lines started across London in the early hours, with Unite flags, banners, whistles, vuvuzelas and guest appearances from the union's giant inflatable rat!
Unite the union's strike demanded a £500 bonus for all London bus workers for the extra stress and workload expected from July to September during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The union first raised this claim in September 2011 but the big bus companies, Transport for London (TfL) and the Tory London mayor Boris Johnson had all failed to reply.
Among bus workers, there was the feeling of a lack of fairness. Other public transport workers in London seemed to be getting their bonuses.
But I also found a persistent scepticism among workmates. Even after strike dates were announced, some workers still anticipated a shoddy last minute union compromise with the bosses.
Many garage reps and company convenors had a reputation for being in the pockets of management. Clearly this was the thinking behind the bosses' refusal to talk to Unite too.
But gradual changes in Unite's officialdom, with new general secretary Len McCluskey, and within the London and Eastern region, helped ensure workers were really mobilised for a fight.
Decisive 'yes' vote
The vote for action was a decisive 94% in favour. Boris Johnson complained the turnout was low, but it was the same 38% that returned him as mayor that May!
Peter Kavanagh, Unite's regional secretary, said: "Bus workers are on the frontline of London's transport system dealing with millions of passengers yet all TfL has done so far is insult them.
"TfL's Leon Daniels, who earns £234,000, accused bus workers of being 'reprehensible' even though he himself is in line for a £80,000 bonus tied to the Olympics."
As the strike loomed Boris Johnson blinked. Maybe he sensed the public sympathy for bus workers. It probably dawned on him the effect a disrupted Olympics could have on his political ambitions.
Two days before the strike Johnson suddenly produced, like a rabbit out of a hat, £8.3 million towards a settlement and called on bus operating companies to make up the difference - another £5.7 million according to Unite.
Fortunately Unite's leaders did not rush for compromise. The big contractors, including Arriva, Go-Ahead, First and Stagecoach, milk hundreds of millions of pounds in public subsidies from TfL every year. But the mayor's offer did not provoke concessions.
First they understood that a collective defeat over the bonus could set a dangerous precedent. Second, based on past experience, they were still not sure the strike would come together.
Copies of a letter from my firm's boss were put around my garage two days before strike day. It was supposed to be a heartfelt plea to workers to come into work because, despite his sympathies, he just didn't have any money to spare!
Three of the 20 firms - Metroline, London General and Arriva - obtained court injunctions to temporarily halt the strike.
At a few depots, management tried desperately to get buses on the road by bullying new drivers still on probation, or by using roadside controllers and supervisors. But very few buses went out from the striking garages.
Of London's 29,000 bus workers, a big majority were on strike. Unite membership, at around 24,000, increased by hundreds on that day alone.
Unite's organising department valuably showed a new generation of activists how to build strong, effective picket lines. Two further strike day strikes, 5 and 24 July, were named.
But no more strikes were necessary. Within days the bosses were humbled. We didn't get everything we demanded but full-time drivers saw at least £500 extra before tax.
The 71% ballot to settle shows a sizeable minority were prepared to fight for more. Yet we must state clearly - this strike won an important victory.
Unite has plans to build on this success. After a successful all-London claim, we need to move towards all-London pay scales for all workers, although this will not be easy.
Equally important is building an active union in every bus garage. Again this is difficult. Every driver has their own peculiar rota line of late, middle and early shifts. Many work loads of rest days (overtime). But we'll find a way to build our union.
Unite have produced a commemorative badge for the strike and I'm proud to wear mine. But we shouldn't see this historic victory as a one-off episode. It's got to be the start of much more.
In The Socialist 26 June 2013:
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