Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

The Wellington Tramways and Public Passenger Transport Employees Union for 20 years gallantly held the line in protecting employment conditions for bus drivers in the region. Where other unions drivers’ unions were taken out in the late 1980’s after Richard Prebble and the 4th Labour Government deregulated the public transport sector and forced councils to contract out the service. Others soon folded under pressure or sold out their conditions for one-off payments or a few more cents an hour.

In my time as a driver and branch president, we continued to preserve and improve employment conditions. Attempts to break the union by bringing in a flat rate contract and changing shifts to reduce drivers hours. The Tramways union defeated this, and improved wages and conditions at the two other bus companies contracted to the Greater Wellington Regional Council to deliver public transport services. The union did well, but ultimately we were always playing a game of defence. Competitive tendering remained the Government policy and the National Government of 2008 to 2017 Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM) supported the continued competitive tendering structure. This model meant bus companies won tenders by bidding low, and the only way they had to reduce costs was to compromise on health and safety or reduce bus drivers pay and conditions.

Above: The Thank You Driver campaign was launched in 2017 to try and protect Wellington drivers jobs and work conditions after the council re-tendered the bus routes. 

In 2016 Greater Wellington Regional Council voted to get rid of the city’s trolley bus network. As one of the last remaining southern hemisphere trolley bus networks, it was a sad day for transport enthusiasts. Much worse, trolleybuses were an environmentally friendly alternative to diesel and the council’s proposed clean energy alternatives were decidedly dirtier. But the clear motivation behind this decision was to break the monopoly of Wellington City Transport, and thus the Tramways Union so to drive down wages and conditions. This project was led by my early political nemesis and former MP Paul Swain. By this stage, he had been elected to the Regional Council, a local authority with a history of disappointing Wellington bus drivers. Swain had also been a bus driver and member of the union in the 1970’s, so had full knowledge of what the consequences of his actions would be.

Sure to form, Paul Swain along with Regional Council Chair and another former Labour MP Fran Wilde proposed tearing down the trolleybus wire and increasing the city’s carbon emission. This was to then promptly followed by re-tendering all the bus routes having redesigned all the bus network so that bus companies could then compete over routes and undercut each other. At one council meeting in mid-2016 Swain was questioned about the possibility of protecting drivers jobs and employment conditions. After a few questions he lost patience, slammed in hand on the table and ended the meeting. This was the extent to which Swain and the Greater Wellington Regional Council considered supporting bus drivers during this process.

By this time I was working at the PSA and was actively looking towards moving to the UK. We had founded Piko Consulting and were starting to run successful campaigns in New Zealand. In early 2017 the Tramways Union contacted us about helping them. They knew things were looking bad with the tendering, and drivers stood to lose their jobs and take significant pay cuts if they had to go to a new employer.

Piko helped the Tramways Union launch the Thank You Bus Driver campaign to pressure the council to protect drivers’ jobs and working conditions. In June 2017 drivers and supporters of the campaign attended a Greater Wellington council meeting demanding that they support the drivers. By this time Chris Laidlaw another former NZ Labour MP, had replaced Fran Wilde as the Greater Wellington Regional Council Chair. The below recording was made by me at this meeting:

This promise would ultimately be broken a year later. In 2017 the Thank You Driver Campaign gained momentum and became an issue during the 2017 General Election with Wellington MP’s and candidates endorsing it. Whilst I was happy this was happening; I knew that in all likelihood the drivers would end up taking a hit.

Wellington City Transport (Go Wellington) retained some of the Wellington City contracts, and the pay and conditions remained largely unchanged. However, they lost a significant number of routes. The Tramways Union with support from the Council of Trade Unions (the NZ union peak body) tried to negotiate with the new contractor, who for months played games and refused to engage with the union. Despite his promises in the above clip, Chris Laidlaw refused to help.

In late 2017 the incoming Labour Government made changes to the PTOM contracting rules. But it was too late for Wellington, where the Regional Council contracts had already been set.

In mid-2018 the change over happened. Many of the drivers who’d been around a while and were nearing retirement chose to take the redundancy payment. The Union had to take legal action to ensure these long-serving drivers got their entitlement, but eventually were successful. In the tragic case of my former colleague and good friend Chris Morley, he died of cancer just a few days after the payment came through. Chris was vice president of the union and carried the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to save his members jobs. I spoke to him a few days before he died and he told me the stress of the last couple of years had likely contributed to him getting cancer.

For those who went over to the new company, they faced a $200 a week pay cut, fewer protections regarding hours of work and rosters and generally much worse employment conditions. As many drivers quit, the new company couldn’t run its services. Thousands of passengers were left stranded on new bus routes they were promised would be more efficient. Wellington had one of the highest levels of public transport use in the country, the Regional Council’s actions destroyed this overnight. An inferior public transport system, worse pay and conditions for drivers and buses that now were emitting more carbon. Local Government decision making at its finest.

Many of the regional councillors responsible didn’t stand again in the 2019 local government elections, realising that after what they had done re-election was less than likely. But the damage had been done. Whilst things have settled down somewhat over the last two years the service is not what it was. Turnover of bus drivers has increased, and the reliability of the service remains much lower than it was prior to 2018.

The Tramways Union continues to organise drivers in the Wellington Region. The Thank You Driver campaign will continue to call for drivers pay and conditions to be restored to their pre-2018 levels. The last few years have not been easy for drivers, but the Wellington Tramways Union continues to be the voice of these workers, as it has been since it founded in 1908.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

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