OPINION: Strike action by bus drivers would be extremely damaging

NX Bus have been in negotiation with the Unite trade union for several weeks now regarding pay increase offers for their drivers and engineering staff.

The Express & Star reported today that the Unite union has notified NX Bus of ‘intended strike action’.

National Express, which operates bus services in the West Midlands, confirmed it had been notified of intended strike action by the union, Unite.

The company said it is still in talks with the union, but added that it has given its drivers “a fair and responsible offer”.

A National Express spokesperson said: “We have offered our drivers an average rate increase of 14 per cent from January of last year. We believe that is a fair and responsible offer.

“It is fair because it recognises the impact of inflation and it is responsible because it will enable us to continue to provide vital services to the public.

“We are continuing to talk to the union.”

“National Express bus drivers in West Midlands to strike in row over pay” – Express & Star, 14th January 2023

Now don’t get me wrong, I think bus drivers do deserve a fair salary increase, as do many other professions.

I work for a small private company and I’d happily accept a 14% pay increase, which seems reasonable enough to me.

While unions do have their benefits, I do sometimes think that the union leaders can sometimes be guilty of being a little too greedy at times. Most members would probably gladly accept this offer, however the unions will always (naturally) try and push for more.

With any kind of business, wage bills make up a large proportion of a company’s operating costs. Generous pay increases mean that wage bills also go up, thus increasing the company’s operating costs.

This is also happening at a time when bus operators in the West Midlands are expected to keep ticket and pass prices ‘frozen’ until 2025, while operating costs have already increased due to increases in fuel and energy prices amongst others.

In my opinion, and to coin an oft-used phrase, this is not “sustainable”. If the union manages to negotiate a pay increase better than the one on the table, then one of two things will happen:

  1. Bus fares will have to be increased in order to keep commercial operation of bus services viable, ie revenues will need to increase to reflect the increased operating costs.
  2. Bus services will have to be cut back or withdrawn, especially those that are currently borderline unviable, ie cutting costs in order to keep the business profitable while revenues are lower. This would of course result in jobs being lost as drivers get made redundant.

As TfWM and the West Midlands Mayor Andy Street have already made a pledge to keep fares frozen to help with the ‘cost of living crisis’, then I’m afraid scenario 2 is the more likely outcome.

What happens if NX bus drivers go on strike?

As we’ve seen recently with Royal Mail and rail staff strike action, huge amounts of disruption are caused. Passengers/customers become inconvenienced, and a lot of goodwill becomes replaced with resentment. (For example Royal Mail have lost a lot of business where larger companies have turned to other delivery companies instead)

While a large number of people do rely on trains to get around to travel to work etc, it could be argued that if there were no – or very few – bus services running on days where strike action would take place, then there would be massive disruption, with far more people being unable to commute to work.

And not everyone has the luxury of having a car, or being able to afford to hire taxis instead, and “walking or cycling” might be out of the question too.

Passengers have already been inconvenienced for several months where bus journeys have failed to operate due to ‘driver shortages’ (or as Stagecoach Midlands calls them, “circumstances beyond our control”), but multiply that onto a grander scale, where barely any journeys operate at all.

I totally get that in order to attract, recruit and retain new drivers, the bus operators have to offer a decent salary.

But on the other hand, such strike action can easily put off passengers from using bus services, and once they have found some alternative, it is always going to be difficult to attract them back again.

And equally the likes of TfWM are very keen to encourage people to stop using their cars and switch to using public transport again in order to ‘save the planet’ by reducing carbon emissions. But if people can’t rely on public transport, then they will stick to using their own cars, which just adds to the traffic congestion and makes bus services even more unreliable.

Will drivers go on strike?

The Express and Star article linked to above is a bit misleading, as it seems to insinuate that strike action is ‘definite’, but all that has happened so far, as I understand things, is that the union Unite has given ‘notice of intended action’. A ballot will need to be taken of members, and if there is a majority agreement, then strike action will be confirmed and dates of industrial action provided.

I hope it doesn’t come to this and that an agreement can be reached, because it would end up being a disaster for bus passengers, as well as bus operators and their staff.

UPDATE: January 15th – looks like this is definitely happening at some point then…

Unite the Union has written to its members, following the ballot on Thursday and Friday, telling them that 95.7 per cent rejected the company’s final offer and were in favour of strike action.

The letter, seen by the Express & Star, also explains the next steps of preparing a formal application for industrial action.

It also says “communication channels will remain open” and if new improved offers are made in writing, they will be put to members at depot based ballots.

“National Express bus drivers’ strike vote almost unanimous after pay offer rejected” – Express & Star, 15th January 2023


About WMBU

Stu is the founder of this West Midlands Bus Users website.
He is not a bus enthusiast, but as a regular passenger takes an interest in public transport related matters, having relied on buses to get around for over twenty-five years now.

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