23 Apr 2021

Wellington commuters facing disruption as bus drivers strike

2:10 pm on 23 April 2021

The chair of Wellington's regional council is frustrated and disappointed at a bus company's decision to lock out workers amid a strike by drivers over pay talks.

Picketers outside Wellington's Kilbirnie bus depot on Friday morning.

Striking drivers picket outside the Kilbirne bus depot in Wellington on Friday morning. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Tramways Union members voted last week to strike after a breakdown in pay negotiations with NZ Bus. About 100 drivers went on strike from 4am.

Tensions went up a notch yesterday however, when the company told drivers they would be locked out until they signed up to a collective agreement. The bus firm is owned by Australian company Next Capital.

Greater Wellington Regional Council chairperson Daran Ponter said the action was disproportionate.

"Just extreme frustration and disappointment that large corporates in New Zealand are starting to revert to that sort of behaviour."

Ponter called on the parties to get back to the negotiating table.

Drivers say strike was inevitable

The bus drivers who turned up early at the picket line said they had no other choice but to strike.

"We've put up with this for too long, and that's what it's come to," said Michael Foakes.

Lafaele Ioane said the strike was some time coming.

"All the members are good and supportive to each other - we've been fighting for this for a long time.

"It's about time for us to stand up and do some fighting for our fair pay."

With the lockout beginning tomorrow, they said they were in limbo, not knowing when they would be able to return to work.

"I'm supposed to work on Sunday, so I don't suppose I'll be there," Foakes said.

"[I'll] see what happens. It's a shame. A lot of people put up with a lot of rubbish from this company."

Tramways Union Wellington regional secretary, Kevin O'Sullivan, said they would not engage in mediation until the bus operator ended the lockout.

He said while the notice was a shock, the action did not take them totally by surprise.

"Because it's really just the result of 12 months of bad management, really dreadful performance and the whole industry is in a mess to be honest... it has to be sorted out."

O'Sullivan said the regional council, which manages public transport, should step in.

"The ball is in their court, yes."

Unless that happened it was unclear how long the disruption could do on for, he said.

Picketers at the Kilbirnie bus depot on Monday morning.

Striking drivers picket outside the Kilbirne bus depot. Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

A mediation process, hosted by the Regional Council, was due to begin on Tuesday, but is no longer looking like it will go ahead.

NZ Bus was yet to comment on Friday, but chief operating officer Jay Zmijewski said on Thursday the company had been left with no option but to issue a lockout notice due to the disruption of strike action and the threat of further "surprise attack strikes" by the union.

The current offer of pay and conditions above the living wage were the best in the country, but the union had refused to budge after eight months of negotiations, Zmijewski said.

About 30 picketers were outside the Kilbirnie bus depot in Wellington this morning.

'The regional council can't stand aside'

Ponter said it would ordinarily not get involved with union and employer relations however in this case it could not avoid the tension.

"The regional council can't stand aside where we see this sort of thing heading to the abyss.

"So we have offered the living wage in recent times to all operators which has the biggest effect for the NZ Bus network, we've also offered a facilitated mediation which both parties, early yesterday, had agreed to enter into."

He said that mediation had been frustrated by the strike and lockout action.

"We will continue to work with the parties and keep that offer on the table... at some points the adults in the room have to get back in the room."

Picketers outside Wellington's Kilbirnie bus depot on Friday morning.

One of about 30 picketers outside Wellington's Kilbirnie bus depot early on Friday morning. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Ponter said despite calls for the council to get involved, the onus to resolve the dispute lay with the parties.

"No one's given me the sheriff's badge.

"What we're asking everyone to do is holster their guns and get back into a negotiating environment. They need to call off the strike action and the lockout action and get back in the room."

He said the lockout notice in particular was frustrating.

"The strike was only 24 hours... this is indefinite... there were a few expletives there, it's quite unnecessary and quite disproportionate."

He said NZ Bus had misunderstood their customers by taking a hard line.

"Wellingtonians hold their public transport system very close to their heart. If something goes on, I get to know it personally from Wellingtonians."

"Wellingtonians are firmly behind the drivers on this."

Board showing cancelled bus services in Wellington during drivers strike on Friday 23 April.

Services were cancelled throughout the capital. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Affected bus routes

  • The NZ Bus routes affected are: 2, 3 ,21, 22, 12, 12e, 13, 14, 18e, 20, 28, 30x, 31x, 33, 34, 34, 36,37,81, 83, 84, 85x, N2, N3, N8, and N88.

Metlink services run by other operators, including route 1, are scheduled to run as normal.

Metlink expressed disappointment with the decision to deny drivers work unless they accepted the terms of NZ Bus' offer.

General manager Scott Gallacher said he was surprised and concerned by the action. "We are very concerned about the real impact this will have on thousands of passengers who will be left without services."

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff called the company's lockout decision a direct attack on bus drivers in an attempt to cut pay and conditions of employment.

Such tactics by a corporate had no place in New Zealand society, he said.