First Group: put drivers first!

Submitted by Newcastle on 30 July, 2009 - 6:23 Author: Rosie Huzzard

On Friday 10 July drivers for First South Yorkshire (part of the multinational First Group) struck for the first time on a ballot over pay.

Nationally First Group has offered all workers a 0% pay increase, yet the union has demanded a 10% increase to £10 an hour (outside of London). Although the ballot had a low turnout, 77% were in favour of strike action, and the strike appeared solid with very few buses leaving, and no drivers crossing the picket. Workers’ Liberty activists visited the picket line in Sheffield to show our solidarity and find out more.

In an interview with Unite branch secretary Martin Mayer, Workers’ Liberty discussed how the strike came about, and how it might progress:

“This [ballot] was over pay… involving First South Yorkshire (Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster depots). But right across First Group we’re in the same position where the company is saying 0% [pay rise].”

This was a bitter enough pill to swallow, but with the announcement that week that First were planning to put in a bid for National Express, workers became even more insensed.

“[This is] a company that’s actually recording record profits, paying out dividends on its shares… the anger here at a company that probably has the resources but is not prepared to put any kind of offer at all to the drivers — it’s just unacceptable.”

Angry union members have been told that profit details for the South Yorkshire area are “not available”, which further complicates the union’s fight with First management. Workers’ Liberty argued that the union should demand that First Group open up the books, to which branch secretary Martin Mayer responded:

“They should, but that’s not the point, because it’s one big multinational company that’s recorded the profits, and we say whether one subsidiary is making a lot of profits or not, a 0% pay increase is simply not acceptable.”

The only buses that ran throughout the day were two where First used inspectors, rather than drivers, to operate. Workers other than drivers, such as engineers, inspectors, and cleaners, crossed the picket line, as their part of the union did not ballot for industrial action at the same time.

“The inspectors are in the union but they’re in a different branch and negotiating unit, and will be balloting shortly themselves over their 0% pay increase. Most of the engineers and cleaners are again in a separate bargaining unit, and we’re waiting for their ballot to come through as well. So at the moment it’s just the drivers who are out, who obviously are the majority. It’s us that make sure the buses go out and we won’t be getting any buses out today.”

Workers’ Liberty argues for cross grade coordination, which reinforces that this is not the fight of individual sections of the workforce but a fight that involves all of them. Hopefully joint action will happen soon.

Workers seem ready for a fight with management, with other ballots coming over dignity at work, management bullying and disciplinary procedures (which are the bigger issue in South Yorkshire, hence the lower turnout on the pay ballot). As with many sectors, bullying is becoming a big issue, Workers’ Liberty supports an initiative for a cross-union, anti-bullying campaign.

On going to press Unite had not announced any further strike action, yet had not met with First Group. In order to win, the struggle must be stepped up and action taken to unite all grades on the buses.

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