Express & Star

West Midlands bus strike: Drivers talk of stress, lack of respect and need for fairer pay

"National Express: Shame on You. Billions in the bank. Lousy pay for workers. Pay up now".

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The striking bus drivers were in good spirits as they made their voices heard

That was the slogan on colourful banners and flags at a Wolverhampton picket line as bus drivers started strike action that halted the network across the region.

Dozens of bus drivers were out in force outside a Wolverhampton bus depot as they joined colleagues from across the region in going on strike after a 14.3 per cent pay offer from transport chiefs at National Express West Midlands was rejected on Saturday.

Drivers also took to a picket line at the National Express base on Carl Street in Walsall.

Drivers voted by 71 per cent against National Express West Midlands' pay offer and have begun an indefinite period of strike action which will severely decimate around 93 per cent of the bus network and will impact Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell, Birmingham and elsewhere.

Drivers taking action at National Express, Carl Street, Walsall

The drivers began gathering outside the depot on Park Lane at 3.30am and, despite rainy and cold weather, were in good spirits and full voice as they stood together in solidarity.

They received support from the public, with people sounding their car horns as they drove past

There was a convivial spirit and a good nature to the picket line, with drivers of cars and lorries sounding their horns in support as they drove by, and a manager driving a spare bus out of the depot being heckled by those protesting.

The strike was organised by the Unite union, with West Midlands regional leader Tyrone Fowles saying that it was a last resort to have to strike, but said that workers had had enough and wanted a fair deal.

Calls for better pay and more respect came from the drivers

He said: "It means that our members have given us a mandate to take them out on strike because, ultimately, enough is enough and it's a last resort, but it needed to happen as our members are losing out.

"They are getting a pay cut, in essence, from the offer that has been put forward from National Express and what needs to happen is for National Express to come back to the table and give our members a decent pay rise.

"There have been numerous negotiations with the company and different offers have been put forward, but unfortunately, they have not come back with a suitable offer and our members were balloted and that's what has led to this as they said that was not enough."

Mr Fowles said that he'd spoken to a lot of the drivers and heard stories of exhaustion and long hours and a lack of respect from management and said it was heartening to him to see so many members out on the picket line.

He said: "It's fantastic as it shows the strength in numbers as our bus drivers are here and many have been here since 3.30am and will be out as long as it takes for the company to come to the table and offer a decent pay rise.

"Today's action is about showing there is strength in numbers at National Express and Unite members are sticking together and saying enough is enough and today is not just about pay, but a lot of other issues as well."

Drivers from across the city were out in force and going strong, despite some having been there since 3.30am

Other drivers on the picket line were in agreeance with Mr Fowles about a decent pay increase and also spoke about the need for respect from management and passengers.

One driver, who asked not to be named, said: "We just want more respect from the management as I think the treatment we get is unfair and unjust at times and all we are to them is a login number.

"There's a real feeling of frustration about communication and the way we are treated as if we make a mistake on a Friday, we get a letter a week later, then a meeting a week after and we get treated like children, so we want more respect."

Another driver, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "I'd like to see us get a decent pay rise out of this as it's a shame we've had to go on strike at all.

"If wages were able to keep up with the cost of living, this wouldn't be happening, so here we are now."

Another driver, who also asked not to be named, spoke of the level of stress they went through and said the strike action was justified as the money wasn't enough.

The driver said: "We've had to do this because of the stress and the issues that we go through and it's necessary to ensure we can get a proper pay rise.

"Morale, right now, is in the garbage and you constantly go through problems every day, with people coming on with no tickets and people threatening you, so what we are being offered just isn't enough."

There were dozens of drivers out on the picket line

While NX West Midlands bus services have been massively affected by the strikes, the Green Bus have offered the use of 18 buses to Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) to help to keep key routes in the West Midlands moving during the strike action.

The double-decker buses are available between 8.45am and 3.15pm on weekdays, and at any time during the weekend.

The Green Bus recently awarded staff a pay increase of 26 per cent (from £11.50 to £14.50 per hour on weekdays; and £17.50 at weekends) and are fully-staffed.

Although the company’s buses are fully used during peak hours, 18 buses are available for use during the middle of the day.

Ian Mack, Chief Executive of The Green Bus, said: “Bus drivers’ roles are difficult and demanding, and we understand fully the need for everyone in the transport sector to earn a wage which reflects the challenges of their job.

"We’re in the fortunate position of being able to offer to assist TfWM to keep key corridors moving.

"People rely on buses to reach workplaces, hospitals, colleges, and universities.

"There will be long-term damage to people’s confidence in buses unless they can rely on a basic service in a time of disruption.”

“At the moment, for example, there is no bus running to New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton, and only one route to Birmingham University and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. We can help to plug those gaps immediately.”