Major disruption as bus strike hits Plymouth
COMMUTERS, shoppers and students faced major disruption today as staff at a leading city bus company walked out on strike.
A dispute over pay has led employees of First Devon and Cornwall to join picket lines after bosses and union chiefs failed to reach an agreement.
The bus operator said it had called in managers to drive buses on some routes.
But the company warned city people to expect most of their services to be either disrupted or cancelled altogether. Services run by other companies are not affected.
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Buses from the busy George Park and Ride site were expected to run every half an hour, as opposed to every seven minutes.
The only unaffected First route would be that serving Tavistock College students.
Last night the operator labelled the strike action "selfish".
The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) hit back, saying drivers had "had enough" amid meagre pay rises and the removal of overtime.
A First spokesman said: "The walkout was planned despite a number of very good offers having been tabled by the company as recently as Wednesday evening.
"In this current economic climate we believe this action is very selfish."
But Phil Bialyk, regional organiser for the RMT South West, said the dispute had rumbled on since April.
"We took a strike ballot and had a very clear mandate for strike action," the former bus driver told The Herald.
"Last-ditch attempts for talks floundered and our drivers felt enough was enough."
Drivers were unhappy with the offer of a one per cent pay rise this year – and a proposed 2.7 per cent pay hike next year, he said.
But Mr Bialyk added: "The real sting in the tail is new contracts that are coming to light in Cornwall." He said First had proposed new deals which would see drivers' sick pay reduced – and overtime pay scrapped.
"We would sometimes be expected to work 45 hours a week," Mr Bialyk continued.
"We were working our way towards a settlement but this is not moving.
"Our members met and decided enough was enough.
"The company makes good profits and the drivers have had enough."
First said the action would cause "undue disruption" to "hardworking people" in Devon and Cornwall.
"People rely on our services to get to work, education and leisure destinations," the company said.
"We deeply regret this but we are afraid that despite lengthy talks and a willingness to negotiate on behalf of the company an agreement has not been reached."
"With many out of work and others facing pay freezes and tougher times we are very disappointed that the union representing our drivers and engineers has turned down a two-year-pay deal."
The spokeswoman said the proposed deal offered a guaranteed pay increase from December 2, along with a one-off lump sum payment on the same date and a further pay increase from April.
The company said it also offered a "generous" pay and benefits package, including a contributory pensions scheme, free bus travel for staff and immediate family and reduced train travel around the UK.
It also included access to other discounts at high street shops and leisure facilities, as well as an employee assistance programme and saving schemes.
First does not run any contracted school bus routes in the city.
However, many pupils rely on public buses run by the company to get to school.
School-goers and commuters were urged to "allow extra time" for travel and to find alternative routes.
"We would like to offer our sincere apologies to our customers who will be inconvenienced," First added.
PLAN YOUR JOURNEY
NO other bus operators are affected by today's strike action.
Plymouth Citybus emphasised its services would run as normal.
Concerned public transport passengers can look at the Traveline website to plan routes.
Customers can also access First's Facebook and Twitter pages for the latest information at www.firstgroup.com/devon or www.facebook.com/firstindevonandcornwall.
The company is also on Twitter at @FirstBus_Devon.
Customers can also call First customer services on 0845 600 1420 or Traveline South West on 0871 200 22 33.
Alternatively, visit www.travelinesw.com.