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Bus drivers to strike in North West

An Arriva bus in the North West.

“You wait for a bus and two don’t come at once!” – Arriva bus depots in the North West enter into industrial dispute along with Stagecoach Gillmoss

In a matter of days, Arriva bus drivers in the North West will take to the picket line in the second time in less than five years.

Disputes like this one have been a long time coming, as patience with an employer that has little to no regard for safety, staff welfare, staff retention and stress of its workforce – not to mention the heavy-handed disciplinary sanctions for loyal drivers often making honest mistakes – is at an all time low.

As it turns out, there is also very little sympathy from bosses for the workers’ fight against the cost-of-living crisis.

Stagecoach Gillmoss Depot have already taken strike action as part of their dispute, and are due to be out the same day as Arriva drivers – 20th July – although a new offer will be balloted on. Stagecoach have reportedly been offered an 11% increase.

At the start of the year, members of Unite and GMB unions were holding branch meetings to ascertain aspirations for a pay claim which was agreed across branches at £15 per hour (due to an Arriva ‘accounting tradition’ this figure is not the same as other depots in Bolton and Manchester, who are still on less than the Merseyside depots but are involved in the dispute nevertheless as they seek a rise, too).

A lot of the members were still seething from the pay dispute in November 2021, in which members were recommended to accept a 3% increase at a time when there were real labour shortages (which remain largely unchanged) and of course, CPI inflation was at 5.1%.

It was argued by some at the time that ‘we take this now and go again in April’. That argument is more flawed now than it was then, because a company offering a real terms pay cut once is likely to do the same again. The ballot result represented this split with 934 voting to accept Unite the Union’s recommended offer and 856 choosing to reject.

The offers

With the pay claim submitted to Arriva following branch and regional discussions with union members, they came back to the negotiating table and offered a 2.2% pay increase on 30th March 2022 and then the next day came back with a ‘revised offer’ of 2.72%, with CPI inflation being recorded at 7.0% by that point.

Understandably, such insulting offers only served to harden the resolve of rank-and-file members in depots. In April, they returned to the table with two offers: the first was a 3.0% increase, the second was a 6.1% increase with a cut to sick pay and ‘waiting days’ as well as changes (a cut) to the Saturday enhancement pay, which ironically was given to us in the last pay deal. This second option was, in other words, self-funded.

1,514 Unite members rejected both offers and 1,478 wished to proceed to strike action from there.

Seemingly blind and bereft of common sense, Arriva then arrived back with yet another offer: this time, a two-year deal. 3% for the first six months of 2021, topped up by 2% for the last six months leading up to April 2023 where it would again rise by 3% and 2% respectively in that year, too.

This then prompted Unite to enter into a trade dispute with the company which yielded a 95% in favour of strike action on a turnout of 71.7%. The latest offer put before members was a one-year deal of 5.0% + 2.4% which was immediately rejected as it still fell way below the requests of members and much lower than current CPI which is set to touch 10%.

There are some people who think that we should “feel lucky to have a job”, that “you’re already well-paid” and “you don’t do much”. All these things are untrue.

We are lucky to have a job but it is worth remembering that as a unionised workforce, we have a democratic right to express how our work is to be done and be paid. It is also worth noting that in the last twelve months, scores of people have been leaving the industry in search of better pay elsewhere, as highlighted by the HGV crisis of a few months ago.

On the other hand, a lot of drivers have attributed stress and work-life balance as a key reason to leave. After all, as a lot of drivers say, “we can go to Amazon and earn £11 per hour and not have to deal with the stress and pressure of carrying precious cargo”.

And on the point of being well-paid, there are still huge amounts of Arriva staff having their wages topped up by Universal Credit. So the British state is picking up the tab because the German state isn’t sufficiently paying its workforce – it’s a mess.

And as for ‘not doing much’, driving for nearly ten hours a day on the roads of Merseyside is enough in itself, never mind having to deal with all kinds of problems thrown at you by the general public and the hideously unrealistic running schedules (which were tightened under Covid and never changed back) which puts drivers in an all too familiar predicament of racing around like Schumacher or finishing late and missing precious time with family. As in most workplaces, you don’t get thanked for it!

Yet, like in most disputes, there are other factors that enter into a worker’s
consciousness. In the summer of 2021, when drivers were slogging their guts out
during the pandemic, Arriva made a national decision to scrap two joint contribution pension schemes – Arriva National Defined Benefit Scheme, and Arriva Passenger Services National Pension Scheme).

This not only made members poorer in retirement but it also meant that they had big questions and huge decisions to make regarding their hard earned cash. Arriva Management cited that the continuation of the pension scheme would hinder Arriva’s ability to operate existing contracts and competitively bid for new tenders, which would lead to reduced revenue, potential downsizing of the business and potential job losses for our people.”

This was an act of industrial aggression, a diktat. Records showed that up
until 2018, the pension was in a relatively healthy state, showing a surplus up
until the 2019 valuation where it had a black hole of about £19 million.

This is a theme that runs in every dispute with Arriva – penny-pinching from people who need it most, and claiming that poverty threats about job losses and the perception that somehow hard working staff are some sort of barrier to Arriva achieving new contracts and growing the business brand coming from Arriva HQ.

Another aspect to consider is the day to day operational issues taking a toll and further alienating staff: holidays being refused, excessive driver monitoring and surveillance, wasted money on bright ideas that just aren’t that bright, buses that are faulty (sometimes even dangerous), shift patterns that leave drivers having to give up their hobbies and interests, rotas changing at very short notice which completely ruins plans and social life…

On top of that, there’s the patronising attitude from elements of Arriva’s senior management; some of whom have never driven a bus in their puff and are guided only by a sense of power and a comprehensive understanding of the guideline book given to managers as if it is the Holy Bible.

This ‘culture’ is best relayed through communication sent via letters on the staff noticeboard signed by the Area Operations Director. In one letter of correspondence, he suggests the company cannot afford 7.4% and that Arriva is loss-making.

This, despite passenger level increases since Covid and some services still operating a reduced ‘Covid-style’ frequency across the area which have not been returned to their pre-Covid levels!

Merseytravel highlighted in a recent report that “…now passengers are returning in large numbers… near 90% patronage on some days”, suggesting that Arriva are telling only half the story when it comes to measuring patronage versus service output.

Indeed, many drivers have said and would say that it is extremely busy at times throughout the network. Yet, most of all, the disappointing aspect of these communications is the fact that we are being told to ‘tighten our belts’, ‘be realistic’ and ‘be sustainable’ when senior managers are earning vast sums of money.

Indeed, if things are so bad and patronage levels so low, why are Area Directors still on huge amounts of money and performance-related bonuses? Moreover, why are we threatened with job losses when Arriva have spent huge amounts hiring and training new recruits in recent months?

And in further developments, on Thursday 14th July 2022 it was reported in some depots that senior Arriva management had ordered depots to cancel duty swaps and holiday requests immediately, trying to bully drivers and their unions back to the table.

Swaps are a key part of allowing drivers to fit work in and around their schedules with some swapping on to early shifts for childcare and some swapping on to late shifts so they can do things throughout the day. Most weren’t too fazed about holiday requests being denied as many workers within Arriva have assumed for a long time that holidays and time off are strictly not allowed!

The smear campaign

On Wednesday 14th July 2022, Arriva called further talks which culminated in an offer of 8.5%. This again was two-part offer of 5.0% from April 2021 and a 3.5% ‘top-up’ in October 2022. This, too, would serve as a real terms pay cut and would not scratch the surface of inflation now, never mind in October.

This offer was rejected out of hand by Unite and GMB representatives which followed an immediate press release from Arriva: “we are deeply disappointed by this totally unjustified strike action… we urge Unite and GMB to work with us… rather than moving the goalposts on a previously recommended pay deal which met the Union’s aspirations for their members”.

The very last sentence is telling; not least because it is out of the Arriva negotiating handbook of half-truths and because it follows a similarly sinister tactic from Arriva Management from the 2017 dispute which paints its workers as greedy and indecisive.

Of course, trade union members have been consistent on their aspirations from the very start and had Arriva not wasted time, the dispute could have been settled.

Instead, it looks like industrial action is going ahead and workers should prepare for a fight, with the opposition resorting to underhand tactics: Arriva apparatchiks briefing the Liverpool Echo (a loyal friend of the workers it is not) of how much bus drivers earn to manufacture outrage on its social media channels, local managers ‘inviting’ staff into their office to run the idea of breaking legitimate strike action by them, and their ruthless pursuit of active trade unionists using their voices bravely and proudly.

Industrial action is also an opportunity that operators like to make use of by referencing the negative impact that strike action has on the “communities we serve”.

Members and the general public more widely will remember that Arriva have systematically cut the network to pieces in recent years, leaving communities left completely isolated and fares in the neighbouring regions of Lancashire soaring recently.

Indeed, none of these two things have any relation to a pay rise but everything to do with a company holding local councils to ransom and playing a postcode lottery with services which people desperately rely on.

But that’s the thing with ‘tightening your belt’. In today’s Britain, some belts are bigger, fancier and more lavish than others.

Passengers vs Drivers – don’t fall for the bosses line!

And to those still in any doubt – if you joined a job in 1988, like some of my colleagues have, would you advise them to stay on the same rate of pay with the same conditions? Of course not.

Arriva started this dispute by offering us a 2.0% pay increase, an insult when you consider how “heroic” and “clapworthy” we were through the pandemic.

Of course, we weren’t the only workers to do so, but we are rightly and democratically taking a stand through our unionised workplace.

If Arriva don’t give its drivers a pay rise, will they lower fares? Would they pay the difference out to passengers as some sort of charity? Absolutely not.

We as transport workers and union members recognise that passengers have a poor deal. Through taxes and fares they are paying through the nose to use buses in the area when, worst of all, the profits are going to the GERMAN state (DB owned) to fatten shareholders pockets and to give Germany a very good level of public transport (nationalised).

The sooner people start asking real questions about the direction of this country, where our money goes and to whom, the quicker we can crack on about doing something about it and demanding these employers pay their workforce properly so that every worker gets a fair pay rise and has a decent transport system that serves them – not multi-billion multinationals.

Image: Kk70088Arriva LJ67DMFCC BY-SA 4.0