From pandemic heroes to underpaid workers, UK bus drivers revolt

Southport, UK – In Southport, an old seaside town in northwest England, bus drivers gather under a bus stop.

They stood and chatted, one wielding a Rubik’s Cube and a couple holding red flags, three weeks into the bitter conflict with bus operator Arriva North West.

Just then, a motorcycle came sideways in front of them.

“Do you realize I’m on minimum wage too?” shouted the helmeted driver. “I’m the one paying for all of this.”

After a heated exchange that lasted about a minute, he sped off.

It was another day on the picket line, sandwiched between Arriva’s offices and people just behind the bus stop.

And it’s another dispute, part of a wave of strikes threatening to paralyze the UK’s transport and telecommunications networks, ports, hospitals and schools – each unique, yet united by the country’s current mood of discontent.

At first, the protesters were wary, worried about the company’s visits to moles, but gradually the tension eased and soon everyone was talking.

Among these complaints are about meager pay rises, deteriorating conditions, fat-cat executives and huge corporate profits.

Arriva, a UK operator that operates more than 4,700 buses nationally, has a large share of bus and rail services across Europe.

It receives local and national government subsidies and is owned by Deutsche Bahn, one of the world’s largest transport companies, which has forecast operating profits of more than one billion euros ($1.02bn) for 2022 – a solid post-pandemic recovery as energy prices skyrocket.

For bus drivers, after years of minimum wage increases that failed to keep pace with inflation, now galloping to 13 percent by early 2023, many have had to resort to state benefits to stay afloat.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the company showed its gratitude by giving boxes of chocolates to bus drivers.

At the same time as they received the chocolates from Ariva’s front desk, marking their names on a list so that no one received more than one box, Ariva announced that it was canceling two of its pension plans, showing a deficit of 18 million pounds ($22m). .

In these times of uncertainty, drivers who have served for decades felt the rug was pulled from under their feet as medical personnel risked their health to play a frontline role in transporting them to hospitals during the Covid-19 crisis.

According to workers, there was little consultation or advice. The measures that were eventually introduced left workers feeling that they had been short-changed.

Against this backdrop, a non-judgmental visit to chocolates with a brand called Heroes stung.

“It was cheap and sheltered,” said John Larkin, 26. “Now that workers are looking to increase their wages, they are no longer ‘heroes’. We are seen as a brazen, shy, militant trade union.”

Simon Wolfe, 57, a veteran driver with almost 30 years’ experience, said the situation had gradually worsened over the years. [Lorraine Mallinder/AFP]

The drivers are demanding an 11.1-percent pay rise, which would bring their hourly rate to 15 pounds ($18). In the last round of negotiations before the strike, Arriva offered a 3 percent increase or a 6 percent cut in sick pay and weekend overtime rates. The workers rejected the proposal saying that the company was giving with one hand and taking away with the other.

At the time of writing, the company had made a revised offer of 9.6 percent, which was fully backdated to April. Workers will vote on Monday and Tuesday.

Ian Wilson, 64, who has been with Arriva for 35 years, says he wants young people coming into the industry to get a square deal.

“It used to be a decent wage,” he says. “It’s about treating employees fairly. We have not been treated fairly.”

During the strike, drivers receive funding from their union, but many are taking out loans or taking out loans.

Larkin, a single father of a three-year-old son, worked nights as a bus driver while studying politics and criminology full-time at Liverpool University.

Since graduating, he has been working day shifts, struggling to make ends meet.

“I don’t want to open the banking app because there’s always a red minus figure,” he said.

Last month, his account was frozen after he breached his overdraft limit.

With a weekly salary of 1,600 pounds ($1,930) per month, Larkin cannot cover outgoings of around 2,200 pounds ($2,655), covering rent, council tax, shopping and rising energy bills, without state benefits.

There are always extra expenses like replacing his cracked mobile phone screen or his child’s broken bed.

“There is no rainy day fund,” he said.

“Because I’m struggling, I ask myself if I’m doing something wrong, constantly letting my son down. There is a media story about the benefits. I feel guilty that someone is subsidizing my salary. I am now an archaic single parent claiming benefits. That’s my tag. That’s all I am now.”

bus driver
John Larkin, 26, a single parent of a three-year-old son, is struggling to make ends meet. ‘I don’t want to open the banking app because there’s always a red minus figure,’ he said [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]

The irony of claiming government aid to work full-time for an employer subsidized by UK taxpayers’ money is not lost on workers.

Even more oddly, according to them, the profits from their labor eventually flowed into the coffers of Deutsche Bahn’s sole shareholder, the German government.

United, the union representing 1,800 bus workers in the North West, claims that Arriva’s UK bus division has paid out 560m pounds ($676m) in dividends over the past 10 years.

Germany’s control of a major national asset operating as a private multinational had mixed effects, drawing criticism at home.

However, the policy has enabled ambitious initiatives, such as a planned 13.6 billion-euro ($13.8bn) upgrade of its rail network.

Meanwhile, the privatization of the UK’s bus services, deregulated everywhere but London since the mid-80s, has raised fares by 32 percent since 2010 and cut bus routes.

Bus operators have increased the limit in this market.

Simon Wolfe, 57, a veteran driver with nearly 30 years’ experience, said the situation was getting progressively worse.

Drivers are squeezed by constant tight schedules that leave no time for a proper lunch and toilet break, and are constantly prepared for inspection by plainclothes inspectors.

And now, they’re dealing with real-terms wage cuts.

“They’re stealing from you to pay you,” he said.

“If you don’t give them power, they won’t treat you like that.”

A spokesperson for Arriva said it was unable to comment while the current discussions are ongoing.

Ian Wilson, 64, is with Arriva
Ian Wilson, 64, has been with Arriva for 35 years. He wants to ensure that youngsters coming into the industry get a fair deal. ‘It used to be a decent wage,’ he says [Lorraine Mallinder/Al Jazeera]

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