IF YOU are reading this sitting on a London bus, don't be surprised if the driver or conductor is a bit surly. Indeed, you should be thankful that the bus came along at all. Staff at London Buses, which serves Greater London, are about to get their wages cut by 14 per cent and their hours increased by up to 13 per cent. In response to the cuts, the first in a series of one-day strikes is scheduled for tomorrow.

The talk in Brixton bus garage, from where routes such as the 118, 137 and 159 are run, is of nothing else. The noticeboards, normally used only for the complicated list of shifts, are littered with leaflets with titles such as 'Why Busworkers are Angry'. And angry they are. Drivers in the shabby canteen are eager to express their outrage at what is happening, but, because of fears that the commotion will alert the management, we are forced to flee to the privacy of a locker room, where 'the bosses' are not allowed.

Working on the buses - for those who survive the first year's 'hardening in', which involves getting used to shifts that can start at 4am or end at 1am - is a career. These workers used to be the elite, paid above-average wages for providing a service for which they were proud to wear the uniform. They feel now, as one of them puts it, that it is 'a shit job on shit wages'.

The drivers and conductors first learnt of the wage cuts in a letter sent to their homes at the end of January. Joy, a conductress for 25 years, was horrified: 'I went round all day saying, 'How can I cope?' '

Her husband is 'on the sick', permanently unable to work, one son is unemployed and the other has just received a redundancy notice from a bakery.

Joy, 49, came here from Jamaica in the early Sixties. She says she likes the job because of the freedom from routine: 'Sometimes you have the afternoon off, sometimes the morning for a lie-in. But now it's being ruined. It's the only thing on my mind.

'Sometimes I think it's a joke, that somebody's going to pinch me and wake me up. We've never had a pay rise of pounds 10, let alone pounds 30 or pounds 40, and we're forced to work longer hours. A lot of people haven't realised it's going to happen. I feel knotted inside.'

'What's it all about?' asks Fred, a conductor and driver for 17 years. 'It's not as if fares are going down.'

He is right. It is all about knocking a few pence off tax bills, making the industry 'more competitive' and taking advantage of unemployment at three million, many of whom could be trained in a couple of weeks to drive a bus. London Buses says reductions are essential to prevent drastic cuts in services. The Government is preparing to privatise the 11 London Buses subsidiaries next year and is trying to reduce their pounds 110m annual subsidy.

London Buses, in turn, is putting pressure on its workforce. The average gross weekly wage is being cut from pounds 236 to pounds 202 and staff will be required to work up to five hours longer. Those on split shifts, working morning and evening peak periods with a long break in between, will no longer be paid for the time off in the middle of the day, although many will have to hang around the garage as they live too far away to make it worth going home and back.

The letter sent to each employee contained a legal agreement, making the staff accept reduced wages and longer hours, which they had to sign or face dismissal; and offering them compensation of up to pounds 3,000. Most signed, glad to have a job. But a few refused, even though a further letter warned them not to sign their trade union's letter rejecting the new agreement. It stated: 'You will not be paid the compensation payment and you will be dealt with as if you had rejected the offer.'

Cyril Lowe, a conductor of 21 years' standing and one of the few refuseniks, says he feels his civil rights have been abused. 'If they want to impose it, that's fine. I've got no alternative. But if I sign, it's as if I'm part of it, as if I agree to it - and I don't. I wanted to sign, adding that I was doing so under duress, and they wouldn't let me. They said it would be the same as rejecting the conditions. But who agrees to a wage cut and extra hours if it isn't under duress? It's like having a gun pointed at your head.'

A quiet but resolute man, he picks up the second letter: 'They used the words 'dealt with'. It's like a Fascist state. They 'deal with' people.'

He is worried that he will lose his home. 'My mortgage is around pounds 300 per month. My wife works part time, but at the moment we can barely cope. You do not expect a pay cut. You know things are hard when you first buy a house, but then they are supposed to get better. I've never had a penny off the state, apart from child benefit, and I don't want to lose my job.'

He is seeking legal advice on his position, aggrieved that he could be sacked from a job for no other reason than refusing a pay cut.

Many of the workers have been poring over their old wage slips making exact calculations on how much they will lose. Bob Pettit, a driver for four years, reckons he averaged pounds 190.19 in the past couple of months. With the cuts he thinks he'll be earning pounds 50 a week less, pounds 15 more than he would get on social security, as he has three children and a non-working wife. 'I do lots of late shifts because they pay better, but after 27 March, when all this is brought in, people won't want to swap any more. I spend pounds 90 per week on food, another pounds 75 on standing orders including insurance schemes, rent and so on. That does not include gas and electricity. I'm going to have to declare myself bankrupt.'

A cheerful man with studs in his ears and a moustache, he is ready to give his full name, unlike some of the others who are worried about the management. 'We gave up smoking, we don't go out any more and we went to stay with relatives in Scotland as a holiday because it was cheap. We won't be doing even that this year.'

Like other drivers, he is fearful of the safety risk: 'Drivers have nothing but this on their minds. It's very distracting. You have to make an effort to concentrate on your job, rather than worrying about it.'

As we speak, another driver announces that Thornton Heath garage, just up the road, has gone on strike. The drivers have voted for strike action but most are doubtful whether it will attract sufficient support or achieve anything.

'The union's no good at all. They refused to speak to the management, but instead they should have negotiated,' says Dave, another driver. He is qualified to drive lorries or coaches, but has been round the agencies looking for work and found there isn't any. 'A couple of years ago, there was plenty of work. I will have to stay with the buses.'

He, too, is worried about safety. 'We will be too tired to work on rest days, but sometimes people may need to.'

Outside, on a 109 bus that is due to stop at Kennington, a woman gets on and asks when there will be one going on to Waterloo. The driver mumbles 'dunno' and turns away. The woman repeats the question, but he refuses to speak to her. 'Oh, well, thanks for telling me, cheers,' she says as she walks away. A lot of people may be seeing red on London Buses over the coming months.

(Photograph omitted)

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