Bus strikes, suspensions and solidarity

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.

Bus drivers Auckland Dec 2019

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.

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Cotton On distribution centre members and Ingham workers picketing together

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.

Jared Abbott, FIRST Union Secretary for Transport, Logistics, Operations and Manufacturing, said today’s resolution was an important win for suspended bus drivers, who could now return to work, but that the bargaining process was far from complete and drivers, while pleased to hear of the Council’s plans for intervention, would not rule out further strike action if progress could not be achieved during future negotiations.
“Serious concerns about wages and conditions have not yet been fully resolved, but with the Council’s input and oversight, the process of negotiation now has a fairer and more transparent basis to work from,” said Mr Abbott.
“Negotiations with NZ Bus will continue this afternoon and over the coming days with the aim of reaching a resolution that complements the Council’s decision to facilitate the process of a fair settlement, and one that gets the drivers back on the road in the short term while seriously evaluating a fix for the broken PTOM model for the longer term.”
“In good faith, drivers will be back to their routes from tomorrow, though some major concerns remain about future negotiations with NZ Bus and further industrial action may be possible depending on the tone of negotiations going forward.”
“With the Council’s guiding resolution, we are hopeful that NZ Bus will take the same approach and engage proactively with the unions and Council on the issues that matter to all of us.”
“This is not the perfect situation – drivers have not yet won fair wages and conditions – but it is a meaningful victory in the short-term and a solid foundation from which we can build consensus for a public transport system that works for everyone, including the drivers.”


  1. Hi Daphna,

    Can you tell me more about the MECA that fell through in 2006? I don’t remember that. Would be interested to know why it didn’t eventuate.



    • The process took at least a year, and it was with input from the CTU, involving Sue Ploughman. Laila was the secretary at the start of the process and it made good progress. The Tramways opted to go alone and there were probably other issues at play too.

  2. “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.” Of course some of this restrictive legal right to strike is courtesy of the Labour Party . . .

    • Indeed, Labour have been in government 4 terms since the Employment Contracts Act imposed these strike restrictions and have kept them in place.It’s perverse that any unions remain affiliated to Labour and that any call for a vote for them.

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