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The 2008 Go Wellington Bus Lockout

Written By: - Date published: 5:44 am, July 3rd, 2020 - 6 comments
Categories: blogs, class war, local government, Privatisation, Unions, workers' rights - Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

On my blog, I’ve been doing a series about my time in the Trade Union movement. Links to these earlier posts can be viewed below. I thought I would share this reflection on the 2008 dispute as The Standard reported on it at the time:

20 days after being elected President of the Wellington Tramways and Public Passenger Transport Employees Union (we just called it Tramways), drivers at Go Wellington 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 was 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. 3 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 replied “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 4 pm 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 responders 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 1 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

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

6 comments on “The 2008 Go Wellington Bus Lockout ”

  1. Dean Reynolds 1

    All public transport systems throught NZ should be owned by either Central or Local Government, (as they used to be) operated on a non profit basis & paying the Living Wage.

  2. Tiger Mountain 2

    Good stuff Nick. Unfortunately not enough people imo have experience of direct action in recent times. Taking Industrial action is a quick education for many on the true role of the media, Employers and authorities. Some think–“if we take action we might lose–the counter is–if you do not take action, you will definitely lose!”

    The funny old thing is all the CEOs can stay home for the day and few notice–but when the workers do…

    Public Transport is exactly the scenario where neo liberal methods should be prohibited with low tendering legislated for etc.

  3. georgecom 3

    the placard of "How do you raise kids on $12.72 ph" shows how far things have come in terms of minimum wages. Back then I suspect Go Bus drivers were near Minimum wage. It's now $18.90 and will increase further next year.

    • nickkelly 3.1

      Yes, in fact even by the 2010 negotiations those rates had increased significantly in Wellington.

      Unfortunately in many of the smaller bus companies where there is little to no union presence the rates of pay will be much lower than in the unionised bus companies.

    • georgecom 3.2

      I should have said how far things have come in the past 3 years, drivers on $12.72 in 2008, $15.25 minimum wage in 2016…..stuff all change in 8 years. Now $18.90

  4. Incognito 4

    I’m not in the habit of comparing myself to others, which is just as well because next to you I’d feel like an imposter on TS. Well done and thank you for sharing that story, which is an important one!

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