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First workers to walkout over November
WORCESTER’S bus services could grind to a halt during a series of crippling strikes by disgruntled drivers, leaving vulnerable pensioners stranded.
Campaigners fear nine days of strikes over pay and conditions will hit the most vulnerable people hardest, causing a winter of discontent as pensioners struggle to get to hospital appointments, the doctors and do their shopping.
A series of 24-hour strikes is planned by members of the Unite union who work at bus operator First in Worcester and Hereford.
The walkouts would take place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, November 5 and 6, November 13 and 14 and November 21 and 22, followed by a 72-hour strike on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, November 28, 29 and 30.
However, not all drivers are in Unite and First leaders say they will be able to provide some service.
Brian Hunt, vice-chairman of the Worcestershire Pensioners Action Group, said the action was the latest in a series of setbacks for the elderly.
“This will have a regrettable effect on pensioners who are absolutely reliant on the buses,” he said.
“They can’t take any more hits on their income with heating going up and rents going up for people in social housing.
“The older people are taking a bit of a battering at the moment.
“They can manage to get to the bus stop but they can’t possibly walk to hospital or afford a taxi.”
He also said the move could force them into nearby corner shops which were more expensive than the supermarkets.
The decision to strike followed a ballot of Unite members.
The union has about 180 members in Worcester and Hereford, of which 160 are drivers and about half of these voted in the ballot. Of those who voted, 90 per cent backed strike action.
Tom Keogh, regional officer of the union, said there had been a gradual erosion of union members’ terms and conditions over the last five months but that the strikes would be called off if they got a “clear commitment” from First.
He said drivers were losing about two-and-a-half hours a week in pay (about £25 per week per driver) because they were not being paid for extra work, including carrying out health and safety checks (tyres, lights, brakes, etc), cashing up and walking to their buses.
He also said some drivers were losing up to £50 a week in terms of holiday pay.
“Morale among drivers is very low. Nobody likes going on strike. It is the very last weapon in our armoury,” Mr Keogh said.
“The company is taking no notice of the drivers.
“Whole areas will be affected, from school runs to the community. It is with reluctance that our members are doing what they’re doing.”
He also said there would be pickets outside the bus stations and garages in Worcester and Hereford during the strikes.
Steve Zanker, general manager in the Midlands for Firstgroup PLC, said: “We are making every effort, particularly in the current climate, to resolve this dispute before any disruption to our customers.
“The company has introduced enhanced pay rates of £9 and £10 per hour and modern working practices to its operations.
“The changes were agreed via collective consultation and accepted in a workplace ballot.
“First UK enjoys strong and productive relationships with Unite, the union, across the UK.
"On this occasion, local union representatives want to change the agreed working practices but retain the enhanced pay rates. This has created the current difficulties.
“The company has offered to hold immediate talks to resolve the issues as soon as the threat of industrial action has been removed.
"We encourage all of our employees to work normally through this difficult period.”
Of those customers who have paid for a monthly pass, Mr Zanker said: “We will have plans in place to ensure that our customers are not out of pocket, and we will also confirm nearer to the time the extent of the disruption.”