UK: Arriva Yorkshire bus workers begin indefinite strike over wages

Arriva Yorkshire bus workers went on an indefinite strike on Monday at five garages in North and West Yorkshire: Selby, Heckmondwicke, Wakefield, Castleford and Dewsbury.

Strikers on the picket line at Arriva’s Heckmondwicke depot in Yorkshire. (Unite-North East, Yorkshire and Humber/Twitter)

Around 650 Unite members, mostly bus drivers but also engineers, voted to strike by a 96% majority to reject a 4.1% wage offer for this year. Drivers explained that this substandard offer was worth even less to those on the highest rate of pay. The company’s wage offer opposed a de facto pay cut amid a deepening cost-of-living crisis fueled by the highest inflation rates in 40 years (9% CPI and 11.1% RPI).

Arriva Yorkshire has announced it will not be able to operate services in most of the county apart from parts of North Yorkshire, with major towns affected including Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds . The company has reached an agreement with other local operators First Bus and Transdev to accept the transfer of tickets. BBC Yorkshire reported that 300 buses were pulled from the road following the action. There were well-trafficked picket lines at the depots, including more than 20 at Dewsbury and about 40 at Wakefield.

It is hypocrisy for Arriva to denounce the strike for its disruption of the traveling public. This concern did not prevent the private operator from providing an entirely substandard and unreliable service. Arriva Yorkshire has reduced its Saturday services by replacing the busy weekend shopping day with the less frequent Sunday timetable.

Additionally, there is a shortage of drivers due to the company’s singular pursuit of profit. Bus drivers at Arriva Yorkshire start at £9.79 an hour according to the job advertisement on its website. It’s just 29 pence more than minimum wage. Drivers remain on the tariff for one year.

Longer hours causing fatigue and burnout are responsible for high employee turnover. Another factor leading to staff shortages is the disregard for safety and public health, with the end of all COVID-19 mitigation measures, including isolation rules for staff sick with the virus and the lack of mandatory social distancing or mask-wearing.

Following the announcement of the indefinite strike, Unite and management met to try again to stop the action from taking place. It was reported that last Wednesday’s meeting ended without any agreement.

After giving strike notice on May 25, Unite issued no further press releases about the dispute or the breakdown of talks in the run-up to the June 6 walkout. In contrast, the company took to the media to say the action is “unwarranted” as Unite refused to vote for its members on what Arriva claimed was a significantly improved offer from the 4.1%.

It was only on the first day of the strike that these demands were challenged by Unite, with regional officer Phil Bown speaking to the BBC who summed up: “Mr Bown said the pay dispute had been going on for more than eight months and that Arriva had offered between 7% and 12%, but most workers would receive the lower end of the wage increase which would be 3% below the current rate of inflation.

Much to Arriva’s disappointment, this time around the company could not count on Unite to follow the normal scenario of a new vote to suspend the strike. Additional comments from Bown make it clear that this would have threatened a revolt by drivers who made clear their determination to fight.

“I have bus drivers here who work 40 to 50 hours a week and can’t afford to live,” Bown said. “Some of them are going to food banks to subsidize their income, they shouldn’t have to, they are full-time workers.”

No confidence can be placed in Bown’s claim that Unite will push for a pay rise in line with the cost of living. Even his phrasing at the BBC was evasive, referring only to an “inflation-linked pay rise of around 10%”. Even if fully achieved, this rate is already lower than the RPI rate that Unite officially claims to use as a benchmark for salary increases. But there is nothing accidental in the use of expressions such as “inflation-Related” and “around ten%.”

The conditions are ripe for a fight back across Arriva, but Unite has spent the last eight months of pay negotiations at Arriva Yorkshire isolating and betraying pay struggles in other Arriva UK Bus regional divisions based on settlements of 3%. The union announced the strike in Yorkshire after reaching a sell-out deal in London following a three-day strike by 1,000 drivers. General secretary Sharon Graham said the wage settlement was based on an “enhanced offer”, which is a fraud. The betrayal was also facilitated by a disinformation campaign concealing the fact that the wage offer was half the rate of inflation for the period it covered between 2021-2.

Unite does not highlight the fact that other sections of bus workers are fighting in Arriva, it hides it. The announcement that bus drivers at seven garages in Arriva Herts and Bucks have voted for a 98% pay strike was made on the Unite London and Eastern Facebook group. No central announcement was made by Unite and there was no further news of action nearly a fortnight later.

Unite’s device is used to isolate struggles, forge rotten deals and prevent a challenge to private operator profits based on demands for what bus workers need to protect their standard of living .

Graham refers to the fact that Arriva is part of a “multi-billion dollar” company and can afford a decent pay rise, but in practice the union keeps the divisions operating and makes below inflation deals based on what the company claims it can afford. Parent company Deutsch Bahn Group posted profits of 5 billion euros last year and boasted to investors that its revenue losses due to the pandemic had been more than offset by government subsidies. DB derives its benefits from a global workforce of 300,000 people, of which 195,000 are based in Germany.

A network of rank-and-file committees is needed to unleash the social power of the working class and end the artificial division of workers along sectoral and national lines in the fight against Arriva. Arriva Yorkshire bus workers should forge links with those in the same wage battle at Arriva South London and Herts and Bucks to fight for a higher cost of living for all bus drivers and workers.

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