20 days after being elected President of the Wellington Tramways and Public Passenger Transport Employees Union (we just called it Tramways), drivers at the Go Wellington bus company I worked for were locked out. The city nearly ground to a halt with thousands unable to get to work and traffic congestion a nightmare. Certain journalists were quick to call this a communist conspiracy. Then Council of Trade Unions President Helen Kelly even warned me not to keep doing media as it would be used against the drivers – I ignored her and she later admitted I did very well.
In September 2008 it seemed likely NZ Bus and the Tramways Union would be heading into dispute. However, in the final day of negotiations, after a number of “final offers” from the company that were well below what drivers were asking, the company did offer something we felt we could take back to union members. The background was that globally the financial crisis had hit, and there were fears that if we didn’t take the offer, we may end up worse off. Graeme Clark from the M&C union was strongly of this view. The members were of a different view.
Drivers voted 2:1 to reject the company offer. On September 24th the Tramways Union were set to hold 1-hour stoppages during the morning peak hour commute. The company responded by issuing a lockout notice for all union members on September 25th 2008.
On the morning of the 24th we commenced our industrial action as bus drivers. Managers were running around the Kilbirnie bus depot in a panic. There was a bit of confusion as to what the action was – so as the union president I needed to intervene. A decision was made to gather drivers at The Wellington Station bus depot. Three buses left Kilbirnie depot bound for the station – I was later accused of stealing all three, a level of multi-tasking even I am not capable of. I also jumped on the radio and called on all drivers to finish their current runs and proceed to Wellington station. One driver over the radio asked, “who is this” so I replied, “this is Nick Kelly, Wellington Tramways Union President, please all finish your trip and proceed to the rail.”
At the rail a mass gathering of drivers was held in the station in full view of thousands of passengers trying to get to work. Graeme Clark rallied the troops and talked about how we would outlast the company in the lockout. I started doing media interviews on TV, radio and print media. My colleague Kevin O’Sullivan the Union Secretary was at first reluctant to do media interviews, so I made sure media got in touch with me.
Probably my favourite clip was the Campbell Live interview done while I was driving my afternoon bus run. This was screened at 7pm on the evening of the 25 September 2008 and can be viewed here:
The lockout on the 25th of September only lasted a day. Not a single bus left the Kilbirnie or Karori bus depot. By lunchtime businesses were crying out for the dispute to end, not least because Wellington was hosting the World Wearable Arts Festival that weekend, and no public transport would cause havoc. Deputy Mayor Ian McKinnon, who served with me on the University Council, called on the bus company to look at its wage rates and urged both sides to end the dispute. By 4pm the lockout was lifted.
Above photos taken on the picket outside the Kilbirnie bus depot in Wellington, NZ 25/09/2008.
In negotiations we were able to secure an 11% increase on all printed rates over 22 months, with 7% backdated to the start of April, though the company took weeks to pay this. The union also managed to stop any claw-backs of hard-fought conditions.
The final agreement of the deal was that any potential litigation from the lockout would be dropped. Go Wellington had made an error when issuing the lockout notice and not printed the names correctly. More significantly they had locked out the controllers (the people who did bus dispatch and were first response on the radio). In exchange the deal was the company wouldn’t take any disciplinary action against me for “stealing 3 buses.”
Tramways Union members voted 2-1 to accept the deal. There were a few drivers who felt we should have held out for more, but the prevailing view was that we would take the offer and come back in 22 months. This also meant the expiry date for this agreement aligned with that of the two other major bus companies in Wellington (one also owned by NZ Bus), meaning we would be negotiating for all drivers at once in 2010.
The lockout was a baptism of fire for me as the union president and for the rest of the new union executive team. The dispute established our authority as union leaders and united the bus drivers. By the end of 2008 all but one of the 300+ Wellington bus drivers were in the Tramways Union.
Earlier posts in this series:
Earlier Blog posts about Nick: