We Back the Bus Drivers!

Gowan Ditchburn and Josh O’Sullivan joined bus drivers at yesterday’s strike in Auckland.

Stress and Fatigue at Central Depot

I got to the bus depot just before 9am. A few workers stood outside the gates blocking the exit with their cars, a dozen or so placards on the fence. I ask one worker how the strike is going, “The Strike is going well, no buses have gone out”. I started talking to Frank, the union delegate.

Frank immediately tells me there are three key reasons they are here: safety, working conditions and fatigue. Wages are less of an issue, he says. 35c vs 60c pay rise doesn’t matter when it’s still bugger all. “Pathetic pay,” he tells me. They’re concerned about the stress and fatigue that’s being put on workers and how this is affecting the safety of the passengers. Five and a half hours in the seat a day, with the 10 hour legal minimum (i.e. the average) break between shifts, resulting in many workers only getting five hours of sleep. With bosses trying to push through longer weekend shifts, and treating the union as trouble makers, it is clearly taking its toll on the workers.

“It’s partly AT’s (Auckland Transport) fault.” Frank explains. He describes how the tendering process drives wages down. He expects that they’ll be driven to the minimum in the course of time. Lower tenders leads to lower wages and worse conditions which in turn leads to more accidents. “A spiral” says Frank. I’m told how the union is pushing to try and talk directly with AT, how they want to try and implement a system like the one in London or Europe. A system that should ensure that wages and conditions are kept stable despite changes in tendering or new companies coming in, rather than the “race to the bottom” workers are facing in Auckland. Frank is frustrated. AT doesn’t want to get involved with the bus companies’ operations despite the fact that they’re the ones driving many of the issues with their timetabling. It’s a “cop out” Frank states. The result is that AT won’t extend bus timetables and NZ Bus doesn’t want to add additional busses. In the end the workers suffer as a consequence. Frank tells me that the workers should be having a say. “We know how this job works exactly”. It is something you hear a lot of during workers’ struggle, they are the ones who do the job, they know how it operates, what works well, what doesn’t. For instance the workers knew that the new ticketing system implemented by AT would cause problems even before they installed it. The bosses and others such as AT claim to have professional knowledge, but nothing can beat the knowledge of the workers themselves out there doing the job every day.

Just then another worker interjects. He tells me he’s from New Lynn. He’s upset by the way the company treat them, spending 14 hours at work only to get paid for 8, much of it is a “waste of our day,” I’m told. Bus drivers are at work from 4.30am to 8.40pm every day during this time they have an unpaid break of between 3-4 hours during which they get a small subsidy of less than $6 from the company. But for the worker from New Lynn going home during this break would cost around $20 to get there and back. With “a huge profit, $20 million. Why can’t they put us on better wages?” He tells me also how he would like the company to provide insurance cover for them. He said that bus drivers are safe and professional, but that isn’t true for everyone on the road. He’s concerned about his family should he be involved in an accident. Frank tells me the situation is better overseas, you get full pay for breaks in other places.

The worker from New Lynn talks about something else. When it comes to cashing in the money at the end of the day. He describes how the old system worked where you’d put the money you collected in and you could see if you needed to put in more from your share or not. Now it doesn’t say and workers only find out if they’ve made a mistake weeks after. It causes a great deal of stress for workers. I’m told that the worker from New Lynn once put too much money in and that he’s been waiting three months for the company to reimburse him. Workers must pay if they put too little in but the reverse is not true. I’m not surprised by this, there is very little honesty in “honest business” after all. Frank asks “Why should I have to pay for an honest mistake?”… “They treat us like dirt!” Long hours, low pay and no respect is an appalling situation. Frank tells me that if you ask the managers what they think about the 5hr shifts about the stress and fatigue they won’t answer. They’ll go into denial talking about how workers get breaks and other things. They deny the risk. But at every disciplinary meeting Frank says he brings up stress and fatigue as a contributing factor: “I have a little speech about it”. Frank is mostly worried about the new drivers those who try to keep to schedule and rush around. They don’t know how to keep things safe, they end up putting themselves at risk and under stress.

Frank complains about the stupidity of management and HR. They put slogans around the depot: “work safe go home safe”; “fit for purpose”; “customer service from first trip to last trip”; “on time every time” etc. “How do you get the best out of stressed tired drivers?” Frank asks, “All they do is crack the whip.” The situation seems bleak, bus drivers are treated like dirt, like children. But as the worker from New Lynn says “We don’t carry goods, we carry people’s’ lives… We are customer service, bank teller and professional driver… 3-4 jobs are involved in bus driving.”

As I am about to leave more workers are arriving and spirits are being lifted. One worker arrives and parks their car right across the entrance blocking the way in. Workers are talking amongst themselves joking and laughing. Another worker comes up and Frank comments on her hat, lost property that was going to be thrown out, I comment on how at least there is one perk to the job. We laugh. Just then a worker goes towards the entrance, a scab? “I’m going to go in to make a cup of tea, I’ll see what they say” he says. “Probably nothing.” Another responds, a few of the workers laugh. It encapsulates what it is we’re fighting for. It’s about those daily necessities, things that we can all relate too. We’re fighting for a world where human needs are met, where work is rewarding not alienating and stressful.

A Fighting Mood at Eastern and Howick

Walking up to the Eastern and Howick Bus Depot there are crowds of workers outside, lined along the front of the depot. Around 150 drivers and fellow trade unionists had come out to support what was a hard picket of the depot this morning. It’s now the afternoon shift, a giant inflatable capitalist pig carries a sign, “Sir Brian Souter is a billionaire, Thats why he doesn’t care.” Brian Souter owns this depot along with MANA, and Naked Buslines, and is famed, both globally and in his native home of Scotland for a management style of cutting costs and wages to make his wealth. I spoke to Glen, she is a driver for Eastern and Howick and is happy to see her workmates out in force. “The support has been fantastic we have had a great day the weather has been great, and we have had lots of support from unionists and the public.” I asked her what the management was like here. “They won’t talk to us, they walked away from the negotiating table and we are out here to bring them back. They ignore us all year round when we tell them how stressful the job is, how crazy the hours are, they have never listened to us.”

The Tramways and First Unions represent the majority of Metrolink, Eastern and Howick, North Star, Go West and Waka Pacific bus drivers and organised this picket of over 1100 drivers across Auckland. Workers were up in arms at the bosses walking away from negotiations over the collective agreement, stating this is not about money but about safety and working conditions within those organisations. Drivers often have to wait for 5 hours before they are allowed to go to the bathroom, something they have to radio back to the depot to get permission. Also on the cards are the ridiculously long hours a bus driver is required to do. Starting work at 5:20am, many do not get home until after 9pm. In the middle of the day the drivers are expected to take 4 hours unpaid leave.

FIRST Union organiser Jared Abbott said “He as going deaf from all the tooting” of support from passing motorists. In between leading chants of “Union power”, he said to me “There are 200 drivers from across auckland here, and this picket is larger than the one in town, particularly after this morning.”

Another FIRST union organiser Marcus filled me in. “People got here at 5:30 and began a walking picket across the front entrance blocking buses and delaying them. The drivers were surprised, some even saying who the fuck is that guy, they couldn’t recognise the drivers of the buses because all the regular ones were standing outside.” The management had brought in scab drivers for the day to replace the unionised workers, but the unionists weren’t letting them out of the depot.

The picketing workers blocked the windscreen of the buses with their placards and stood their ground. The General Manager of the Depot – Sheryl Otwin was overheard yelling at the scab drivers to “just drive through them” not caring for her own regular employees’ safety. Just after 6am, 10 police turned up to force back the picket and sided with the bosses to open up the driveway for the buses to move out, and continued to hold the driveway for the remainder of the day.

The bosses and Auckland Transport cannot continue to operate like this, when the bus drivers have so much public support and are so integral to the functioning of this city. I wish them well in their battles against the bosses and we will be out there supporting them the next this happens, because undoubtedly it will happen again. As Glen the driver from Eastern and Howick said to me “We want management to come back to the negotiation table and listen to us. This is only the beginning, we are just getting started.”