by Daphna Whitmore
This week 800 unionised bus drivers in Auckland were suspended from work after they refused to collect fares as part of a campaign of industrial action. Drivers working for Auckland’s largest bus company NZ Bus are asking for more pay and better working conditions after being offered only a 2% pay rise.
With NZ Bus suspending union members and cancelling services around 70,000 commuters each day are being affected during the busiest time of the year. The suspension is aimed at coercing the drivers, but the mood of the workers is to continue to hold the line.
They are fighting a long-running problem of low wages and split shifts. Bus drivers are paid on average $22 an hour and have unpaid downtime during their shifts. They start work early in the morning and can finish 12 hours later without making the equivalent of the minimum wage.
The unions representing the drivers, FIRST Union and the Tramways, say the problem is nationwide and stems from a tendering system. The government requires councils across New Zealand to adopt a competitive contracting model which results in bus companies with the worst conditions and lowest pay winning the contracts. With low wages drivers end up working long hours to make up their income.
As a key part of the economy transport workers traditionally have asserted considerable industrial power. In France, for instance, the transport sector is influential in nationwide strikes. The difference is France has the unrestricted right to strike. So while only 11% of workers in France are in unions, when the workers take action they are often joined by wide sections of society. In contrast, in New Zealand the legal right to strike is limited to collective bargaining. With workers separated among different employers, and on different employment agreements, class-wide action is difficult.
In 2006 bus drivers were close to establishing a multi-employer collective agreement but it fell through at the eleventh hour. A united workforce would have strengthened the drivers’ position enormously.
The suspension of the NZ Bus drivers is also designed to scare other workers from taking action. It sends a message from the employers to the working class that strikes will be punished.
Despite this there is a new level of confidence and willingness to strike. In the past few years doctors, teachers, port workers, fast-food workers, meatworkers, nurses, midwives, anaesthetic technicians have taken strike action. Currently, there are strikes involving Tip Top bakery workers, Cotton On clothing workers and at Ingham’s chicken processing plant in Auckland.
There are also solidarity actions, such as Cotton On and Ingham strikers attending each other’s pickets, and public messages of support for bus drivers from port workers in Lyttelton.
The continuation of a cutthroat tendering system, and industrial laws that restrict strikes and allow employers to suspend and lockout workers, show that the Labour government is as hostile to workers’ rights as National. As Martin Bradbury noted “Labour – it’s like National but with more hugs”.
The prime minister’s hugs are no help to bus drivers who need decent pay and reasonable working hours.
Donations can be made to support the bus drivers via FIRST union’s Fighting Fund. The account number is 02 0192 0491501 00 and reference NZ BUS
12/12/19 Update:A FIRST Union press release reports that the bus drivers will return to work tomorrow as the Auckland Council gives assurances that it will intervene and seek urgency for a review of the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) in which the tendering process is stipulated. The Council will do this to ensure that problems of recruitment and retention of bus drivers are addressed and a fair and equitable resolution is reaches around drivers wages and working conditions.