Yesterday’s strike by London bus drivers inevitably brought calls for the Mayor to intervene and help find a compromise between bus operators who want to maximise their profits and workers who want to earn a bit more.
Unlike Tube drivers, London’s army of 27,000 bus drivers aren’t employed by Transport for London but by the myriad of private firms who run the services for TfL on pretty lucrative contracts.
There are dozens of differing pay grades and rates across the sector which can be an obstacle for staff looking to move employers without suffering a drop in income, and creates a sense of unfairness among staff who know colleagues within the same company or group are earning more.
The London Assembly’s Labour group yesterday called on Boris “to get staff and employers around the table and to look for a mechanism which will allow TfL to ensure more fair treatment and better terms and conditions of employees within the bus industry.”
However City Hall isn’t keen on it or TfL intervening in what it insists is a row between private sector businesses and their staff.
Yesterday afternoon Boris took to Twitter to say: “For 20 yrs including under Ken these issues have been matter for unions & bus companies – union should call off strike & talk to bus bosses.”
The call for unions to stop their action without any upfront concession is typical of Boris’s pro-business and anti-strike stance and many will be disappointed, though not surprised, that he failed to call for any give on the part of employers in return for avoiding disruption to services.
But while his limited intervention could have been a lot more even-handed, Boris is right to be wary of getting further involved in the dispute.
The last time he did so, Londoners ended up subsiding operators by an additional £8m by funding bonuses for drivers who worked during the Olympics.
It’s hard to see how Boris’s presence around the negotiating table this time wouldn’t lead for calls from both sides for the taxpayer to dig deep once again and help fund a settlement.
And once any Mayor becomes part of a deal, they’ll be the first port of call next time drivers and operators find themselves in dispute. Indeed, there’s a real risk that operators will have an incentive to be stingier in future pay deals in the expectation that City Hall will pay up to avoid yet more strikes.
It’s easy to see why people believe a single set of terms and conditions and a single pay structure is fairer, but the costs of achieving London-wide parity would be so great that if the taxpayer is going to fund it, it only makes sense to do as part of a major overhaul of the contracting arrangements.
Or the taxpayer could hire the drivers directly and either assign them to operators – Boris already does this with his New Routemaster buses which belong to TfL – or simply start running services in-house.
Both of these options would represent a big change in how bus services are run and would take time and a lot of public money to implement. But they’d be a more logical and more sustainable solution than ad-hoc Mayoral interventions in disputes between staff and 18 different employers.