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

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

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. 

Link: Dominion Post columnist Karl du Fresne claiming Marxist agitators Graeme Clarke and Nick Kelly had inspired the dispute at Go Wellington

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:

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

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

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

My first year or so on the Wellington buses I was just learning the ropes. Firstly I had to learn all the bus routes. Then I had to remember to stop and pick up passengers. Thirdly I had to relax driving something the size of a small building around the narrow hilly streets of Wellington – many of which are narrow in the car.

Unionism played a prominent role in the life of the bus depot. As mentioned in my previous post, at the time I started there were two unions (one brought in by the company) trying to sign up new drivers. Our first couple of weeks training were held away from the bus depot. Our trainer was clear when asked about the union situation – “don’t join the tramways union, filthy Phil is no good.” Filthy Phil was the long serving secretary of the Tramways Union. He was well known for wearing shorts and jandals all year around. He’d been the secretary at the time of the bus company being privatised, where the union had against the odds held on to penalty rates and other conditions of employment. Not surprisingly, he made a few enemies within the bus company.

My first involvement with the Tramways Union was giving evidence in the Employment Relations Authority that during training the company had promoted one union over the other. The Filthy Phil quote was included in my evidence. The Tramways Union eventually won the case and the other union were no longer on site.

My first drivers stop work union meeting was an eye opener. It had been some years since the Tramways Union had held full branch elections, and a number of drivers were irate. Further drivers were very angry about the company trying to attack penal rates. Phil attempted to run this meeting amid constant heckling, in particular from one vocal driver called Josie Bullock who seemed to have a real axe to grind with the union. The purpose of this meeting was to approve claims for the next bargaining round. At the end of the meeting they were nominating members of the bargaining team. I hadn’t really thought about it, but before I knew it one of the drivers had nominated me. So a few months after starting I was representing drivers at negotiations.

The first bargaining meeting was interesting. The company presented their claims, which from a driver’s point of view looked like the script of a bad horror movie, where conditions were slashed and where the company would shift the balance of power firmly to the employer and a long way away from the drivers. Examples of this were the reports, complaints and enquiries procedure in the collective. The existing clause had a robust process for investigating complaints which incorporated the principles of natural justice. The company proposed to replace this with wording that would have made it much easier to sack bus drivers on flimsy complaints. As a negotiating team we worked hard to stop that. We also tabled our own claims, which included a significant increase to all printed pay rates in the agreement. By the end of the meeting it was clear we were miles apart.

At the start of the next negotiations, the union decided to meet a few hours beforehand to plan our response. Phil was half an hour late. We tried to call him but he wasn’t there. Kevin O’ Sullivan the union president and Graeme Clarke from the Manufacturing and Construction Union (who was advocate for the workshop workers) went around to Phil’s house. When they got there they discovered he had died.

Phil’s funeral in June 2008 was well attended, and buses in the city stopped for hours. Phil had played a massive role in the Wellington Tramways Union, and there was concern about what would happen to it now he was gone.

Negotiations continued, and we as a bargaining team made some progress on getting the company to moderate their position. However getting movement on pay increases was slow. Mediation services got involved with the hope of bringing us together. However we felt it was likely that industrial action would follow.

At first I hadn’t seriously considered running for the union executive. Kevin O’Sullivan the president had become acting secretary and was considered the front runner for the role. Former union president Morris Dawson had joined us on the bargaining team, but he didn’t want to be more than a site delegate at that time. Chris Morley was considering running, but was more interested in the Vice President role. Kevin O’Sullivan asked if I’d consider running, and my initial response was that I was too junior. But I thought about it. I then remembered that my old adversary from the Labour Party, Paul Tolich, had once been the Tramways Union President. Shortly afterwards I decided to run.

Karori Depot bus driver and friend Alan St John. After the 2008 Tramways Union elections Alan joked “Chris Morley, Kevin O’Sullivan and Nick Kelly, the bloody Irish Catholics have taken over the union

Page 7 of this Rail and Maritime Union newsletter reports on the Tramways Union election and looming industrial dispute at Go Wellington.

I was elected by a fairly sizeable majority, as were Chris and Kevin. The negotiations were progressing, but we still hadn’t lifted the pay offer to an amount that drivers would accept. My first few weeks as Union President were about to become very busy.

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

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

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

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.

Capital Times on Nick being voted “Go Wellington’s best bus driver”. 19-25 November 2008

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:

Why Trade Unionism

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