Plans for an attempt to introduce private tendering on some London bus routes, linked to plans for major cuts scheduled to take place over the following five years, sparked a 24-hour bus strike, on May 10th, 1987, in which 20,00 bus workers took part. The Thatcher government’s decision to open up London’s bus routes to private operators was a part of the comprehensive campaign to offload state-administered industries and infrastructure wholesale onto the private sector. Now, of course, mostly achieved, but in 1987, still a battleground whose outcome was uncertain.
Workers on London’s buses, as elsewhere, were aware that an essential element of this was an attack on wages and conditions – crews working longer hours for less money. This was the only way a bus service was likely to be profitable and thus attractive to the private sector. In London, however, services were not entirely deregulated, as they were elsewhere (under the 1985 Transport Act) – contracts to run a number of routes were basically up for auction for a specified term. For a number of reasons related to London’s position as capital, population, economy, this model was judged more appropriate than the wild west approach allowed to open up in the rest of the country (which led to chaos at bus stops, and, eventually, huge price rises in some cities).
The process of privatising London’s buses began with the creation of London Bus Ltd, which immediately began reducing wages and increasing hours. As one bus-driver, Graham Burnell recalled:
“I was a driver at Kingston and Norbiton garages from 1975 until 1990 … Unfortunately in June 1987 Norbiton became the first London bus garage to become a low cost unit where all routes were put out to tender and were won by reducing the drivers’ pensionable pay to £3.20 per hour whilst the London fleet rate was £4.17 per hour. We were also given decrepit vehicles to drive and the 39 hours week became 45 hours. Instead of the economical operation of a garage each end of the route i.e. Sutton and Norbiton, the tender trap meant all buses must come from one operator and consequently Norbiton ran empty buses to and from Sutton and West Croydon as positioning journeys whereas previously all buses ran in service. Our pay cut helped pay for this uneconomic operation.”
During the strike, an arson attack destroyed a double decker bus in Shepherds Bush Bus Garage.
The dispute continued to trigger stoppages and protests for several days after the one-day strike. On May 22nd, 20,000 workers were called at short notice to their garages for emergency meetings by their union, paralyzing most bus transport in the capital.
There were further bus strikes throughout the summer that year: on 21st August buses in the Norbiton area were again hit by strikes against the proposed competitive tendering as 2300 engineers stopped work.
None of which prevented the tendering process taking root. Undeniably, from the perspective of bus workers, in the years since, wages have been reduced. Employees are required to work longer hours, the infrastructure has been damaged (large numbers of bus garages have been closed down and replaced by depots with “third world” facilities). Technological changes first wiped out conductors completely since 1987, resulting in a more isolating, stressful and sometimes dangerous job for drivers. However, statistically, the tendering approach, as opposed to the fuller de-regulation applied in the UK more widely, has been associated with a rise in the numbers using buses, and in the general profitability of the contracts. This may well have something to do with the economic uniqueness of London as compared to almost everywhere else.
Reports on some more recent strikes among London bus workers can be found here
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.