The London Bus Strike (By A Busman)

On October 18th, London was in the grip of an ever spreading bus strike. As each issue of daily and evening newspapers reported more and more garages affected and more services withdrawn, so the streets of London became increasingly crowded with motor cars and other vehicles and extra police had to be detailed for traffic control.

The strike, which by October 18th embraced 43 out of 84 Central London bus garages was the boiling over of a feeling of resentment that has been simmering amongst busmen for a long time. An understanding of the position requires a review of bus worker’s history over the past 15 years.

Before the 1939-1945 war London busmen received a wage above the average paid to workers in other industries throughout Great Britain. They attained this position by their ready willingness to struggle and the favourable position of their industry. A passenger transport strike represents a dead loss of income to the employers. A stock of passenger rides cannot be built up in preparation for a strike and travellers do not take two rides in the place of one after the strike in order to recoup the employers for the loss. Further, it has a damaging effect on other industries.

During the war busmen were urged to sacrifice some of their working conditions in favour of the war effort. They anticipated that, after the war, they would not only regain the things they had sacrificed but receive many improvements in addition. They formulated a programme of demands which became known as the “Post War Policy,” to be achieved when the time was opportune. The time has never been opportune. With other workers, they were told that the country had to be put back on its feet, export markets had to be captured, the dollar gap had to be closed and the London Transport undertaking was financially “in the red.” There were no end of reasons advanced in favour of wage freeze and wage restraint and why the time was not opportune. A number of minor concessions were gained, an extra quarter time for Sunday work, 9d. per hour for Saturday afternoon work (see Socialist Standard, February, 1949), plus a few pay increases of 7/- or 8/-, the last of which was awarded at the beginning of this year. With the ever increasing cost of living the busmen have found that, despite their pay increases, they have been getting poorer and poorer.

This has resulted in a heavy staff wastage which the employment of more women conductors has failed to reduce. The wastage has become accelerated during recent years. British Transport Commission reports show that during a four year period ending 1952, 25.485 drivers and conductors left their jobs and from January 1st, 1952, to January 1st, 1953, there was a net decline in staff 1,012. In a sellers’ market the opportunity was present for busmen to gain a higher price for their labour power.

The gaps in the bus services caused by this staff shortage have been partially filled by busmen working excessive overtime, an opportunity which many of them seized to build up their meagre pay packets. Early this year the busmen began to realise that they were missing a favourable opportunity and that whilst they contented themselves with getting extra pay for working seven days a week plus other forms of overtime, they were solving the London Transport Executive’s staff problem and missing the boat that could provide them with improved wages and working conditions.

A ban on rest day and extra duty work was imposed at a few garages and gradually spread throughout the London bus fleet until it embraced almost 90 per cent. of the 114 garages and trolley bus depots. A demand for a £10 10s. weekly wage for all sections (Country Service sections now get a much lower wage than Central London busmen), a five day 40 hour working week and payment during periods of sickness became a rallying point.

The London Transport Executive claimed that this demand was far in excess of anything that they could concede and, although they made certain proposals for a longer working day with increases in overtime pay, they would not negotiate whilst the overtime ban was in operation. Then, without consultation with the men’s Trade Union representatives and in a most provocative manner, they introduced into a few garages, a set of schedules that made drastic cuts in a number of bus services. This put the spark to the tinder and garage after garage came out on strike, many without the new emergency schedules coming out in support of those which had them.

The busmen are now claiming that workers in other industries have forged ahead of them and that the inconveniences of their job are not compensated for by the wages they receive. For getting out of bed during the small hours of the morning one week and getting home during the small hours of the morning the following week, for having irregular meal reliefs and a disrupted home life a bus conductor receives a basic wage of £7 14s. 6d. for a 44 hour week—a driver gets 4s. extra. Only by working on Saturday afternoons, on Sundays and national holidays and by performing irksome spreadover duties, can a man get his wage over the £8 mark. A high physical standard is demanded of new recruits but sickness is not catered for—no work, no pay, is the principle. A new contributor pension scheme, recently introduced, is so meagre that it is a matter for ridicule. Annual holidays must frequently be taken during the least pleasant months of the year. The system of rest days makes it necessary to work seven consecutive days before a busman gets a day off except when he has a series of Sundays free from work.

That was the case the London busmen were making on October 18th. A conference was called that day and the delegates from the garages decided by a heavy majority vote to call for a resumption of work and the lifting of the overtime ban in order to have the emergency schedules withdrawn and to allow negotiations to commence with the submission of a claim for higher wages, regulated overtime, to level up the rates of pay between the Central and the Country Services (the Red and the Green) and a number of other items.

The overtime ban had been welded into a strong weapon and it gave the busmen the initiative in the struggle. The introduction of the emergency schedules, by precipitating a strike put the busmen on the defensive and gave the L.T.E. the initiative. Whether it was consciously devised by the L.T.E. or not, it was an astute move and the busmen were snared. Now they impatiently await the outcome of the negotiation.

As with every other commodity, the price of labour power fluctuates with variations in supply and demand, but the fluctuations are not automatic. They are brought about by the efforts of employers to obtain cheap labour power when the supply is plentiful and by the struggles of workers to get more when the demand exceeds the supply. London busmen are working on sound lines in using the present high demand for their particular brand of labour power to force up its price.

As usual there are no end of well wishers and advisers who have cures for the case. Harry Pollitt and Arthur Deakin are for once in agreement in expounding a cure. They both accept that the financial position of the London Transport Executive precludes a satisfactory settlement to the busmen’s claims. Some means must be found to improve this financial position and they both speak for a reduction in the fuel tax which would free the L.T.E. from a heavy burden of taxation and release a large sum of money which could be utilised to reduce bus fares and increase busmen’s pay. This is an old, old, stinking red herring that dates back to the days of the agitation for the repeal of the Corn Laws. One section of the capitalist class considers itself unjustly treated in relation to another section and enlists the aid of the workers to secure advantages for itself. In the early days of the 19th century it was the heavy tax on com that was supposed to weigh heavily on the workers by keeping up the price of bread. Repeal the Com Laws, they were told, and bread will be cheaper and your wages will buy more. They fell for it. The Com Laws were repealed after years of effort and the workers had to fight against the drive to reduce their wages as soon as there was a tendency for the cost of living to fall. The position will be no different for London busmen. If a reduction in the fuel tax was achieved they would still have to fight to get higher wages.

Incidentally, the London Transport Executive have indicated that they are not interested in a reduction in the fuel tax. When a proposal was made to them by the Transport and General Workers’ Union to use the backs of bus tickets to publicise a campaign for fuel tax reduction, they replied that they were a section of the British Transport Commission which relied mainly on railways for its revenue. A fuel tax reduction would assist their competitors, the road haulage companies, to more successfully compete with the railways.

A reduction in the amount of interest paid to bondholders by the Government and collected by them from the British Transport Commission is another proposal to put money into the Commission’s coffers and so make higher wages for its employees possible. It is not unknown for a Government in such a case to waive part of the interest charge payable by a nationalised industry, but this would mean higher taxation so that the Government could continue to meet its own legal obligations to the former shareholders now holding Government stock. It would, however, not in the least lessen the efforts of the Board and the Government to keep wages down as much as possible. The general body of capitalists paying the increased taxation would press for lower fares and freight charges not higher transport wages.

The Press has been mildly sympathetic to the busmen. There are many who say that the busmen have a good case, but . . and the “but” evolves into a variety of schemes to get more out of them. One scheme in the forefront is to introduce one-man-operated buses on a wider scale. They have already been introduced in places on the outskirts of London and in the provinces. One man only is required to drive the vehicle and to collect fares, attend to the safety and comfort of passengers and, in general, conduct the bus. Some development of this nature is to be expected for it has ever been a rule of capitalism that, when the employers are forced to pay higher wages they look around for ways and means to reduce their total wage-bill by the introduction of labour saving machinery. That ultimately means, not less labour for all workers, but more labour for some and enforced idleness for others popularly known as a slump.

It may seem to busmen and all other workers that the position is impossible of improvement. Not so. There may be improvements for some of the workers for a long time and for all the workers for a short time, but the range of all improvements is very limited within capitalist society. Not a reduction in the amount of interest paid on investments but the abolition of investment; not struggles for higher wages but the end of the wages system; not joint consultation between employers and employees, but the elimination of employment and unemployment, a world wherein everyone produces to his best ability and has access to the wealth produced, in a word—Socialism. That is the only alternative to an indefinite continuation of the struggle to get enough to live on for those millions who constitute the working class.

Busmen have always had one weakness in their struggles—inter-garage rivalries, inter-section suspicions, inter-service jealousies and a lack of close communication to allow of concerted action. The overtime ban did much to overcome those difficulties and give a common purpose. The strike, as it was not complete, has recreated the difficulties. To achieve Socialism there must be a breaking down of the rivalries and antagonisms between all workers in all industries and a unification, on the political field, on the basis of a clear understanding and awareness of their interests—AS A CLASS.


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