When one talks to people about unions, if they have heard of them, they generally think of them running campaigns to get more money for members. This is indeed one of their key functions. However, a good trade union should be doing considerably more than just this.
One of the major things that unions do is campaign for health and safety. Some prioritise this significantly more than others. In a world where people must sell their labour power to live, at a minimum they should not lose their lives at work. Yet every year thousands of working people globally go to work and never come home.
When you work in the transport industry, health and safety is something you need to be aware of every minute. As a bus driver you are responsible for getting hundreds of passengers safely to their destination each day. Drivers must navigate busy narrow streets, and try to avoid hitting cars, pedestrians, and whatever other obstacles the city tries to throw at you.
Early in my time as Tramways Union President, it became clear that there were some significant health and safety issues the union needed to champion. When incidents happened in the city, media reports tended to automatically blame the driver or imply the bus driver was to blame. If someone runs out into the road without looking, is it really the bus drivers’ fault that they couldn’t break in time? It was clear that bus drivers needed a voice, and the union needed to be that voice.
In 2009 the bus company ordered several new buses. Investment in the fleet was of course welcomed by everyone. Initially there was a degree of consultation with drivers about the design and layout of these vehicles, but when drivers started asking tough questions this soon stopped. New buses were ordered with dashboards which were significantly higher than in the older ones. In earlier buses you could see 2.5 meters in front of the bus from the driver’s seat, in the newer buses the dashboard meant you could only see 3.2 meters ahead. The design was taken from long haul truck and coach vehicles but was totally inappropriate for urban driving. Tramways Union Vice President Chris Morley was particularly vocal about this having been one of the drivers to first raise it. Eventually, the buses with these higher dashboards were retrofitted with mirrors so drivers could see the space blocked out by the high dash.
In a city with narrow streets and generally poor road layout, cyclists are a hazard. Inner city cycling is immensely popular these days and they have vocal lobbyists. Former Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown used to cycle to work and told a National Radio reporter that the city needed to “civilise the bus drivers.” Aside from the middle-class contempt for low paid workers, this showed a considerable lack of understanding by the Mayor as to what the issue was. A decision was made by the council to allow cyclists to use the bus lanes. So 5pm, on a dusky late autumn evening, you are driving up a bus lane past the Wellington Botanical Gardens. You go around the corner and there is a cyclist in the middle of the lane, not wearing reflective clothing and not moving fast. On your right there are cars and there is extraordinarily little room to get around the cyclist. If you stick behind them the bus will run late, but when you overtake the cyclist, they scream blue murder and get irate that you got too close to them.
In 2010 I was part of a bus drivers and cyclists forum where the goal was for each group to get a better understanding of the others perspective. The Campbell live clip of this can be viewed below:
One of the major health and safety issues, aside from the design of the vehicle was the design of the city streets. In 2010 Wellington City turned a pedestrian Mall in Manners street into a main bus carriage through the city CBD. The city planners felt this shouldn’t create any major problems, especially as they lowered the speed limit to 20km per hour.
Within a week of the Manners Street bus carriage opening there were 3 people hit. At first drivers were accused of speeding. This was proved false when those signs showing drivers speeds were put up through the route. The trolley buses, being electric were notoriously quiet, and because they were going under 20km per hour pedestrians did not notice them. Also, after 30 years of Manners Street being a pedestrian mall, old habits die hard and people continued to walk through the street.
I issued a statement saying if the council did not put adequate safety measures in place, drivers would boycott the route. This threat got significant media attention.
Eventually after the council transport team agreed to meet with the union. From this and continued pressure, some safety measures were put in place – such as barriers or additional signage.
Earlier posts in this series:
Earlier Blog posts about Nick: