Free rides keep bus staff on road

Drivers sacked for going on strike win Essex women's sympathies with un ion-financed service offering friendly and safe journey

The buses are free and the service friendly with pensioners being helped on by solicitous drivers. They are the latest tactic in a lengthy industrial struggle between Britain's second largest bus company and the transport workers' union in Chelmsf ord, the county town of Essex.

The buses are free and the service friendly with pensioners being helped on by solicitous drivers. They are the latest tactic in a lengthy industrial struggle between Britain's second largest bus company and the transport workers' union in Chelmsford, the county town of Essex.

The free buses are being laid on by the union after Badgerline, which owns the local Eastern National bus company, sacked 96 of its drivers who went on strike in November.

The drivers, who were paid about £218 for a 45-hour week, had voted for industrial action over the company's attempt to increase the maximum time a driver would be in charge of a bus from four hours to four hours, 45 minutes.

The drivers were worried about safety. One, Bill Horslen, said: "There were a couple of bus crashes in London over Christmas and one of the drivers said quite specifically that the long hours and the stress caused the accident. We're trying to stop that happening here." After receiving a letter warning them that they would be dismissed if they went on strike, the drivers walked out on 18 November.

Eager to obtain public support for their action, just before Christmas, the drivers began operating a free bus service on some of the routes within Chelmsford. Yesterday, Bill Morris, general secretary of the T&GWU, brought two of the union's buses to C h elmsford to increase the number of vehicles providing the free service to five.

Mr Morris sees the strike as particularly important for the trade union movement. He said yesterday: "These workers went through all the correct procedures before taking industrial action. They had a ballot and 74.5 per cent of them supported strike action, but they still all got sacked. No trade unionist can feel safe if this can happen."

The idea is not to provide a commercial bus service in opposition to Eastern National but to scoop up some of the company's custom and earn a lot of goodwill in the process by providing what the union says is a "safe journey". If one of yesterday's midd a y runs from Moulsham Lodge on the outskirts of Chelmsford on the 45 route was anything to go by, the union is winning the hearts and minds of Essex women.

Each 12- seater minibus has a driver and a helper. The trick, according to Ron Sparks, one the sacked drivers who was at the wheel, is to get just in front of the Eastern National bus to grab all the passengers, a tactic used throughout the country by private bus firms competing against each other. Starting from Moulsham Lodge, the bus was virtually full with women and children after just a couple of stops.

Jean Burgess said it was the third time she had used the service: "The other buses never seem to come now. And the last one I took had a Swedish driver who didn't understand English money and tried to give me lots of change when he shouldn't have done. He must be costing the company lots of money," she said with a chuckle.

Like everyone on the bus, Mrs Burgess supported the drivers: "They won't get their jobs back, but I'm glad they're trying to." But wasn't this Essex, not known for its sympathies with striking workers? "We're all behind them," echoed all the women on thebus. And they all threw the £1 10 fare in the donations box as they got off.

Back at the bus station, the strikers had just stopped a bus going out with two broken rear windows by alerting the company. it is clearly short of drivers since half of its buses are sporting L-plates, though it emphasises that only qualified drivers are carrying passengers.

Mr Morris leaves for a meeting with Eastern National's managing director, Robin Orbell, but he is not hopeful of a settlement: "We are in for a long haul and we are prepared to send more buses if necessary."

Mr Orbell said: "The union is using its members' subscriptions to undermine the jobs of our staff, 400 of whom are in the Transport & General Workers union."

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