Express & Star

Crunch talks to begin amid West Midlands bus strikes as applications to become drivers roll in

Crunch talks were due to take place between union and transport chiefs today in an attempt to resolve a bitter pay dispute and put an end to 'indefinite' bus strikes.

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Mark Crump entertained the strikers with his drumming in Kingswinford

More than 3,100 bus drivers at National Express West Midlands began continuous industrial action on Monday, after the majority rejected a 14.3 per cent pay rise offer in a ballot by union Unite.

As the strike reaches its fourth consecutive day, National Express has revealed that applications to work for the company as a bus driver have almost tripled since the strikes were announced.

In an average week, the bus operator receives 140 applications a week but in the last week there has been a record 393.

Yesterday morning, the bus operator accused strikers of blocking buses leaving several garages in Coventry and Birmingham, while Unite accused National Express of "unjustly calling the police to peaceful picket lines" and "threatening striking workers with job losses and route closures".

National Express strikers in West Bromwich

Union bosses said it had launched a free phone hotline for workers to report "instances of intimidation" in relation to the dispute.

National Express has said it has committed to running every bus possible during the strikes, with a skeleton service in place.

But police were called out yesterday after National Express said buses were prevented from leaving garages in Coventry and Birmingham.

A National Express West Midlands spokesperson said: “We fully respect the rights of bus drivers to withdraw their labour and picket their workplace, but they should not be blocking buses from departing garages.

“The people of the West Midlands are being disrupted enough by these strikes, but to prevent even a skeleton service is completely unacceptable.

"Our compelling offer of a 14.3 per cent increase to pay along with increases in Christmas and New Year pay, and accident pay, remains on the table.

"This offer would take a typical driver - three out of four of all of our drivers - to £16.46 per hour, which works out around £33,000 full time.

“We are very sorry to our customers for the disruption the strike is causing. We are adding more services back all the time.

"We warmly welcome any driver back from strike, with open arms, no questions asked.

“When this is all over and Unite has ridden on to the next city to cause havoc to ordinary people’s lives, we will be focusing on rebuilding a bus service that we can all be proud of - and our drivers are central to that."

The union said the offer was a 'real terms pay cut' while the company makes considerable profits.

Strikers in Kingswinford

The 'indefinite' strike action is expected to continue until the situation is resolved.

There have also been picket lines outside National Express garages in the Black Country, including in Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich and Kingswinford.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Our members are rock solid in their determination to win a pay rise that reflects the difficulty of their roles and soaring living costs. They know that National Express can absolutely afford to pay it."

To apply to become a bus driver, National Express says the roles do not require any GCSEs or academic qualifications and all that’s needed is to be over 18, hold a valid UK car licence and "have a passion to deliver great customer service".

A National Express West Midlands spokesman added: “It’s great to see so many people feel our offer is compelling and are applying for bus driver roles. Beyond the pay and benefits, being a driver means playing an important role in the community and keeping the West Midlands moving.”

People are encouraged to check the website to confirm which services are running.