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Date: 19/11/21

Split Differential

It's been an odd sort of week up here in the colonial hill station.

To give a little background: the drivers at Arriva Buses Wales lodged a new pay demand earlier this year.

Bear in mind at this point:

The reaction of Arriva Wales' drivers to the news that the company was offering them only a two-point-five per cent rise, and that nothing was going to be done to address the cross-border differential in hourly pay rates may be imagined.

There was a ballot of the Unite members at all six depots - Wrexham, Amlwch, Bangor, Hawarden (which ironically provides some of the services over the border in and around Chester), Llandudno and Rhyl - which gave overwhelming support to an all-out strike. This was due to start last Sunday (14th).

Arriva Wales (which, let the truth be stated, is the same company as Arriva North West; and the whole shebang is owned by Deutsche Bahn anyway) expressed their 'disappointment' with Unite's members' decision. The insincerity of this may be gauged by the fact that they went on to refer to the employees they were seeking once more to shaft as their 'partners', always the sign of MBA-grade bullshitting.

The propaganda war then started, in which Arriva seemed to be far quicker off the mark and seemed to garner far more coverage (and far more favourable coverage) than the union. There was even one statement - which either emanated from a droid at Arriva or was a wind-up, I haven't been able to find it again to check its bona fides - which suggested that the Arriva Wales drivers got lower pay because they had nicer scenery to drive through than their English counterparts; something which couldn't in all seriousness have ever been claimed by anyone who has had to travel through Brynteg or Caia Park of a winter's morning.

The local rag and the BBC certainly seemed to give greater prominence to not only the company's version of reality, but to those they had vox-popped amongst the populace at large who were critical of the drivers' action. This went even so far as to have an extensive (for the subject) whinge from some old scrote who claimed that the strike had left him 'stuck'...in Llandudno, a place where they still presumably have the means to buy food and other such fripperies. The local media's comments sections were about evenly split. Some people complained about how they were going to be inconvenienced by the strike (with a curious sub-genre which said that the drivers deserved better but that they shouldn't be going on strike to achieve it, which leaves us with the interesting question of how the hell else they were going to get anywhere with an arrogant, recalcitrant employer). One commenter tried playing the 'rah-rah' card by saying that it was an absolute disgrace that the strike was starting on Remembrance Sunday; and others thought that it was an outrage anyway, that others had had to work through the pandemic, and that it was all the fault of those commies in the union wanting to take us back to the seventies when the corpses were piled high on the streets.

(There was a fair point in there, all the same; I'm insulated from the maximum inconvenience resulting from such a strike by the fact that I no longer need to get to a place of employment. I can see why it would cause anxiety to the point of distress in those who are still wage-slaves, especially as the lousy levels of pay many of them have to endure means that taxis are out of the question).

However on social media (which is considered by those who don't know any better to be more 'authentic' these days), Arriva were taking a fair old shoeing, and the clear majority of Tweeters and Faecesbook posters - on Arriva's accounts and elsewhere - held little back in their scorn at the company for behaving like a bunch of gouging dicks.

All of this presented me with a dilemma of sorts. As someone who lives four miles out of town and doesn't drive, I rely on the buses to do anything much at all beyond placing or collecting my prescriptions at the pharmacy at the bottom end of the village. My weekly shopping jaunts and the occasional medical appointment at the local hospital are entirely dependent on there being a bus service of some sort or another (during the early months of the pandemic and the firebreak at the local depot, our service up here was cut to about a half of what it would normally have been). These I could cope with; but an "Everybody out!" situation would put more than a crimp in my customary arrangements.

Despite all this, I was (and am) in full support of the drivers. This may surprise some readers, bearing in mind my comminations against some of them over the years (see the Transport section for a taste of these), but my position shouldn't come as a shock coming from someone who, a) is a veteran union member himself, and b) is convinced that the drivers' cause was absolutely correct. Leaving aside the basic unfairness of such a discrepancy in basic hourly rate and the proposed percentage increase, I find it deeply offensive that any workers on this side of the ever-porous border between ourselves and the colonial power should be paid less than their counterparts on the other side for doing the exact same work.

But the strike was going to cause me considerable inconvenience in any case, and a Plan of Action therefore had to be formulated.

The main one concerned supplies, and the only way I could figure out a way through was by making two trips to Sainsbury's last Saturday morning. This way, I could use my 4.60 all-day ticket to the maximum advantage (I don't qualify for my bus pass until next June). So I compiled two separate shopping lists; one for the stuff I would have been due to get that weekend anyway, and another stocking up on frozen, tinned and other non-perishable items. There would have been too much there for me to lug onto the bus in one visit, hence the double-dip.

I caught the usual 12A at 0720, got home again at about 0840 and put all that load away before catching the 0920 back down, finally getting home just before 1040. Finding space for everything was very much trial-and-error (arranging the stuff in the freezer was like that round in The Krypton Factor of revered memory, and some things which would usually go in there had to be put in the fridge instead). Finally, I had a fridge compartment, a freezer and two food cupboards which were absolutely chocker; I've never known it like this even in one of those years where Christmas and New Year fall at weekends (as - completely coincidentally - they will this year, so this has been a good dry run if nothing else). At least, if it came to it that the strike did last the intended five weeks, I would have a fortnight before I needed to make awkward decisions about what the hell I was going to do in such a circumstance.

There was another complication as well. I was due to get my COVID booster jab on Wednesday. Whilst the first two vaccinations had been carried out at the GPs' surgery (to which and from which - it being a mere two miles away - I had walked on one of those occasions), this needling was to take place at a venue in Wrexham itself. That being four miles each way, there was no way I was even going to consider walking it, however helpful to my general well-being it might have been. I tried phoning the dedicated helpline three times on Tuesday and once on Wednesday morning to try to cancel and arrange an alternative date (and if possible a nearer venue), but was met at each attempt by the message that there was no-one available to take my call (at least they didn't try to tell me that my call was valuable to them; apoplexy I don't currently need). Along with the difficulty the pharmacy in the village is having in getting supplies of the 'flu vaccine, I feel rather unprotected at the moment.

The strike duly began. I had stood at my bedroom window at about 2320 on Saturday night watching the last bus of the day pass by, wondering when we would next see such an exotic creature romping across the sacred acres of the parish.

The following five days were a bit strange without the sound of Optares and D200s rattling and growling by on a regular basis, although it was something of a relief that the earliest buses - 0540 being the earliest Monday to Saturday - didn't shake me out of the only real period of sleep I've been getting of late.

(This is down to my Seasonal Affective Disorder, and I have started using the lightbox which I bought nearly eighteen years ago, but it is now so old that the fluorescent tubes seem to be emitting a large amount of electro-magnetic interference which is causing my internet connection to drop out completely if I have the light on. Further research needed...).

There's another thing which has impinged upon my awareness in all this, and that is the way in which my sense of time passing (on a mundane, quotidian level) is informed by buses. I don't mean waiting to get on one of them; I mean in the way in which they pass by the house. When I am outside gardening, for example, I'm able to gauge the time by - rather than consulting my phone - seeing which route number is on the bus which is going past. Monday to Saturday, I know that if the 12A goes by, it is approximately twenty minutes past the hour (ten to the hour on Sundays); if a 14 passes, it's coming up to the top of the hour (this doesn't apply on Sundays, when the 14 service doesn't run); if a 12 rumbles past the gate, then it's either just after the top of the hour or it's twenty to the hour (except on Sundays, when it's about quarter past). This last is where context is important; if the 12 is just after the 14, that is enough to distinguish it as the top-of-the-hour service rather than the other one.

Similarly, when sitting in the living room, I look around at the sound of a bus and can make the same estimate, even though I have two clocks in the room, one of which is about three feet from my face; it's more entertaining this way.

But this week, I've had no such markers for my days and it's been slightly dislocating.

In any case, yesterday (Thursday) it was announced that Arriva Buses Wales had made an improved offer to the drivers, and that the strike was being suspended pending a further ballot. With any luck, that should mean that the drivers get something closer to what they deserve and that our services in the run up to the Feast of Saint Jeff and All Fulfilment Centers will run as normal.

To end with The Moral: if you want to get any justice at all as an employee - especially of a company which conducts itself with supercilious contempt for the people who actually create their profits - then the answer is clear: