A strange land with strange customs

Don Franks

Somewhere out there is a strange land with strange customs. The head of an airline in this strange land gets paid $46,100 a week. A bus driver performing the essential job of taking passengers to the airport gets paid $544 a week. This is an experienced bus driver on the top rate.

Now the rent in this strange land, for a modest home in a working class suburb is $390 a week, more than two thirds of a bus drivers pay. A driver also has to pay for stuff like food, power, transport and things for the kids. A little money for recreation and entertainment would be nice too. A couple of hundred dollars isn’t enough to adequately cover these costs, so the drivers have to do something.

Bus drivers' rally Auckland

Bus drivers' rally Auckland

They get together in their union and ask the bus company for a pay rise. Not a lot, just enough for a modest living. Still about $45,000 a week less than the airline guy’s getting.

The bus company refuses to meet this request, so the drivers decide to express their discontent by working to rule.

What exactly is a “work to rule”?

In this instance the bus drivers declared that they would all:

*not sign on to commence a shift of work earlier than required.

*not adhere to the media communication policy as it is prescribed in the NZ Bus Operator reference handbook dated March 2008 and will speak to the media without specific authority of the board of directors.

*not drive any bus which is without a working radio telephone.

*not drive any bus which is without a current certificate of fitness or a current road user certificate.

*not drive any bus which has a safety defect the driver is aware

*Would at the commencement of their shift, carry out full pre shift bus checks as described on the defect card supplied with each bus.

*Would spend 5 minutes at the end of every timetabled trip carrying out full terminal duties including lost property checks, using toilet facilities if required by the driver or service person operator, performing stretching exercises and preparing the bus for the return journey.

*Would if no toilet facilities are available at any terminal at the time a driver or service person operator requires them, then comply with the policy as it is prescribed in the NZ Bus Operator Reference Handbook, and,

*would keep to all lawful speed limits.

OK, but um - isn’t that how you’d expect the buses to be operating all the time?

Not in this strange land. A blog commentator supporting the drivers noted:

“ NZ Bus routinely ask the drivers to break speed limits and therefore the law in order to keep timing, that not all buses are equipped with radios …one driver in Auckland who didn’t have a radio was seriously assaulted and couldn’t call for help. The only thing that stopped that poor bastard getting it even worse was that passengers stepped in and stopped it.”

“And if a driver gets caught speeding, NZ Bus won’t be fined, the drivers will. If the drivers have trouble on the road, the lack of radio won’t affect the company, but it’ll affect the driver. And if the driver has been forced to drive a bus that’s not fit to drive on the road, but has been coerced by his manager and threatened with his job, then NZ Bus don’t pay for that if anything goes wrong, the drivers – and passengers – will.”

Well, as you can see from the names in that quote, the strange land is right here. The strange customs are the normal workings of the capitalist system. Most of the time, low paid workers are invisible; when they decide they’ve had enough and stand up to fight back, their action often reveals how crazy the system is.

Union spokesperson Karl Andersen says if it weren’t for working for families tax credits and the accommodation benefit bus drivers employed by Infratil/NZ Bus would be unable to survive.

“Infratil/NZ Bus gets $88 million in transport subsidies, their drivers are paid so little they depend on working for families tax credits and many qualify for accommodation benefits as well. These are effectively Government subsidies to allow the company to get away with not paying a living wage.

“On top of this they collect the fares which are not cheap.

“This company must be setting new records for having its snout in the public trough.

“It is repaying the taxpayers who are funding it so generously by stopping services they rely on to get to work because drivers have the temerity to ask for enough pay to live on.”

Mr Andersen says Infratil has a number of poorly performing investments in European airport companies.

“We need to ask whether the massive subsidies paid by New Zealanders and the cheap wages of the drivers are being used to prop up ailing overseas arms of this multinational company.”

At the time of writing this article, the struggle is continuing, with the workers determined to win.

Wellington Tramways secretary Kevin O’ Sullivan told the Spark:

“Up in Auckland there’s a really good resolve among the members and excellent support from the public, lots of donations have been offered.

“Auckland bus drivers have lesser conditions than Wellington, they eroded over time. Auckland penal rates are just time and ¼ after 40 hours. That’s as opposed to Wellington’s time and a half after 8 hours, time and a half Saturday and double time Sunday.

“Tramways leaders see this lockout as deliberate attempt to smash the union – they could easily afford the workers claim. After the Wellington lockout last September the Bus company boss said the resolve of the company had not yet been tested, maybe this dispute will be the test.”

These recent struggles have revived interest in wider drivers unity.

Tramways Union President Nick Kelly was reported in the Capital Times as saying that the contracts of drivers from Go Wellington,Valley Flyer and Mana newlands are due for expiry early next year and “We are going to try and get a regional agreement.”

There is still a National Tramways union, covering Auckland Wellington and Dunedin rendered impotent back in 1992 after the Employment Contracts Act wiped out the union’s national award. Now, seventeen years later, National Tramways union meetings have resumed. Struggle has pushed drivers unity back onto the agenda.

2 Responses to A strange land with strange customs

  1. Tiger Mountain says:

    Nice article Don,
    There is at least some understanding among the Auckland public now of what the drivers have to put up with. Really public transport should be publicly owned. I like the idea of a Wellington regional agreement, it gets people out of the workplace mentality and onto an industry focus. It worked well for a while in the long gone car industry. I still remember the awful initial Stagecoach takeover in Auckland when the splits began. It does take years sometimes to reorganise. ps My handle used to be “Relic” but got tired of some saying I was one, class struggle never goes out of style in my view!

  2. Paul Drake says:

    I am all for nationalising bus companies such as Infratil. These bastards need to be challenged and union re-organisation is the way to go.

    On the flip-side of the coin $390:00 rent is a hell of a lot for any family man to pay, that’s not right, that should not be any more than 1/5th or 20%.
    Is there some way these speculative landlords be opposed?

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