Bus drivers may dig in for a long fight
Anita Lam and Austin Chiu
Some unionists among New World First Bus drivers are considering a prolonged battle with their employer - a tactic their pan-democratic parent union used in 2007 that helped it achieve its demands and gain ground against a rival union.
The New World First Bus Company Staff Union, an affiliate of the Confederation of Trade Unions, said it would continue its strike today despite poor participation yesterday. The CTU's Citybus Employees Union will continue its work-to-rule. The CTU's Kowloon Motor Bus Staff Union, meanwhile, will also continue its action, in which drivers stay an extra 10 seconds at each bus stop.
The First Bus staff union's chairman, Chung Chung-fai, said drivers would review the situation tonight to see whether the action should continue until the company meets their demand for a 2.2 per cent pay rise - instead of the 1.8 per cent accepted by the CTU's rival, the bigger and more powerful Federation of Trade Unions.
The difference in pay is about HK$40 a month on average, but CTU unionists say that much more is at stake. It is a chance for the smaller union to win over FTU members and employers' recognition, which could in turn boost its status and bargaining power.
Only 77 New World First Bus drivers took part in the strike yesterday, well below the union's estimate of 600.
New World First Bus and the Transport Department urged unionists to be calm and said that contingency measures similar to those in place yesterday - including extra trains and free coach services - would be put into action to ensure commuters get to work.
Despite fears of commuter chaos, the joint action by the three bus driver unions caused little disruption yesterday. Officials said transport conditions were similar to any other work day and that even areas not served by the MTR, such as Southern District, experienced very few problems. At worst, trips were delayed by about 10 minutes.
The eighth round of talks between New World First Bus, Citybus and unionists remained deadlocked yesterday despite a slight concession by companies' management - an offer of a HK$1,800 discretionary bonus to contract staff every year as long as the companies made profits.
But Chung, of the New World First Bus Company Staff Union, said management refused to budge on the 1.8 per cent pay rise.
'They showed little sincerity,' he said, admitting the argument was about more than just money.
The FTU, which has traditionally been pro-government, is stronger than the CTU in terms of membership, resources and its relationship with employers. As a result, the major bus companies, Kowloon Motor Bus, New World First Bus and Citybus, negotiate pay rises with the FTU. CTU-affiliated unions are often forced to accept deals reached between employers and the bigger union.
In the case of KMB, CTU representatives did not even get to talk to company management despite some 90 hours of protests.
Legislator Lee Cheuk-yan, a founding member of the CTU, said the situation could change if the timing was right. 'These conflicts, repeated year after year, are of course tedious and exhaustive. But in time, the staff will see which group really fights for their interests and when the time comes, we could clear the pockets of the FTU,' he said. The term 'clearing the pockets' means winning over FTU members.
The CTU's hardline approach paid off in the 2007 bar benders' strike, which dragged on for more than a month, bringing most construction activity in the city to a halt. Up to a third of bar benders who were originally with a pro-government union crossed over to the CTU, forcing employers to accept a pay rise of up to 7.5 per cent and cut daily working hours from nine to eight.
'[Management]'s refusal to talk will only push us to the edge, unless we gain the critical mass - an overwhelming representation of the staff - the management won't listen to you,' Lee said.
Mok Kam-sun, a veteran New World First Bus driver, ignored the FTU's warning not to join the strike yesterday although he has been a member since 1968.
'The FTU has softened a lot these days. When the company said it could not afford an increase of more than 1.8 per cent, they accepted it as the limit. I don't buy it. Now someone is willing to fight for me. of course I will support them.'
There is a price to pay, however: Mok will lose HK$700 for every day he stays away from work.
Most of the 4,000 drivers from First Bus and Citybus said they could not be bothered.
Yu Pak-keung, a Citybus driver for 10 years who did not take part in the work-to-rule protest, said: 'We are just talking about HK$1 a day. I think the pay rise now is acceptable.'
On the road
Unionists expected about 600 bus drivers to take part in yesterday's industrial action
However, the actual number of drivers who went on strike was: 77