In April 2007 I became a bus driver in Wellington. A job which originally I thought would last a few months ended up being a five year assignment.
My induction from the depot manager Bruce Kenyon was a great introduction into the working class. His words to us new drivers were “Its a shit job, it pays shit money, and if you don’t like it you can fuck off.”
Why did I become a bus driver when I finished University?
I have been asked this question many times, and given various answers over the years. Well in an exclusive to this blog (which I have been told is all about me – yeah take a look at the blog name haha), I will give the real reason.
At the end of 2006, I finished up as Students’ Association President. I had various offers of jobs, mostly through connections I’d made in the university. These offers would have given me some good career paths into the public service, or further within the university sector. I even had some options to pursue a role using my history degree for one public entity. I do wonder what would have happened if I’d followed one of these paths instead. But 24 year old me had other ideas.
In early 2007 I was still very much a follower of socialist politics, and had only been kicked out of the NZ Labour Party a few years prior. I had some earlier experience working at the ferry terminal in Wellington as a student, where one of my jobs was driving luggage trucks on and off the boat. But this was next level.
My usual car is a 1982 Toyota Starlet which you can follow on Facebook. So driving double axle buses through a city with notoriously narrow hilly streets was a challenge. In my second week on the job I managed to demolish a cleaning shed at the depot, learning that in large diesel vehicles, you need to wait for the air to build up before you move.
Within 18 months I was voted one of the top three bus drivers of the year in Wellington. I had regulars who would bring me coffee and biscuits, even the odd offer of weed (I didn’t accept). It became a job were I made life long friendships and really grew and developed as a young adult.
Why did I decide to go this way? In early 2007, Stagecoach Wellington (soon to become NZ Bus) decided to change all the drivers’ shifts. The aim was to cut penalty rates for drivers. In the late 1980s, the government deregulated the public transport sector. The result was councils having to privatise the bus services and run competitive tendering processes. In most cities drivers faced job losses and significant cuts to pay and conditions. In Wellington, the Tramways Union, (founded when the city still had a tram network) managed to hold this off. One reason for this was the trolley bus network, which created a barrier to entry for bus companies. Instead of breaking up the city network and having companies undercutting each other on tenders (and cutting drivers pay to cover it), in Wellington, Stagecoach and later NZ bus kept all of the CBD networks till 2018. The other reason drivers in Wellington maintained their penalty rates and other employment conditions, was that the vast majority of drivers belonged to the union.
In 2007 there was an attempt to break the union. Another union was brought in and they offered an inferior collective agreement where there was no penal rates or other conditions, but had a marginally higher hourly rate. Few drivers bought into this, despite the company actively pushing them. The shift changes made in early 2007 were designed to cut hours back so there would be less overtime, thus encouraging drivers to give up penalty rates. This didn’t work.
Fellow socialist Don Franks suggested I work on the buses for a bit. He’d been talking to a driver called Chris Morley who was active in the union. They thought the job could do with a firebrand who wouldn’t be afraid to lead the drivers into battle, and that I was the perfect candidate.
They weren’t wrong…
Previous posts in this series:
Earlier Blog posts about Nick:
School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly
University and Student Politics
Blogs and the Political Establishment
VUWSA President – the realities of leadership