Crunch bus strike talks due amid warning industrial action could last through weekend in Birmingham

The indefinite bus strike is causing chaos for thousands of bus users across Birmingham and the West Midlands

Crunch talks between Unite the Union and National Express West Midlands are due to take place today as the fourth day of the indefinite strike gets underway (Thursday, March 23).

But the bus operator, which runs 93% of bus services across the region, has warned travellers that disruption to services could continue for days and throughout the weekend. Thousands of people are facing chaos as services to schools, offices and more are unable to run since 3,100 bus drivers walked out indefinitely on Monday.

This afternoon National Express announced that it had made a new offer to drivers of 16.2% pay rise, formalising existing interim overtime rates, increasing Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day pay and accident pay. The transport operator had previously offered a 14.3% pay increase, along with increases to Christmas Eve pay, New Year’s Day pay and accident pay - which was rejected by Unite the Union members.

Unite has responded confirming that strikes will continue during a ballot on this new offer on Friday and Saturday. Unite national lead officer Onay Kasab said:Following negotiations today, National Express put forward an improved pay offer which will be put to our members in a vote over the next two days. Unite will be making no further comments during the ballot period.”

In the meantime skeleton services to hospitals are available - but subject to delays and cancellations - and trains and other bus operators are also running services. Yesterday morning the police were called as bus strikers blocked buses from leaving garages in Birmingham and Coventry. Mayor Andy Street issued an urgent plea for National Express and Unite the Union to come to an agreement ahead of the weekend.

He said: ““It is incredible that National Express & Unite are yet to get back round the table and do a deal, especially when you consider there must be a deal to be done as there has already been a very good 14.3% pay offer.

“If three days of strikes wasn’t bad enough, we’re now seeing the situation escalate on picket lines with police having to get involved. That is deeply depressing, and underlines why a fair Ideal has to be struck.These strikes are causing misery for hundreds of thousands of passengers who are being stopped from getting to work, to education, or even to hospital.

“With that in mind it is now clear that if a deal isn’t done by the end of this week then an independent, non-political arbitrator needs to be brought in. It shouldn’t have to come to arbitration, but if both sides are unable to put passengers first and bring these strikes to a fair conclusion then that is what must happen.

“Transport for West Midlands are continuing to issue travel advice and do all they can to keep our transport network moving, but really this is now all down to National Express and Unite to do a deal or accept arbitration.”

Birmingham bus stopBirmingham bus stop
Birmingham bus stop

Why are National Express bus drivers on strike?

The union says that bus workers pay fell by six per cent in real terms between 2018 and 2021 - with the gap increasing even further in 2022 due to rocketing prices caused by the cost of living crisis.

Unite says National Express bus driver’s starting salary begins at £11.80 an hour, progressing to just over £14 after three years of service. Meanwhile Abellio workers in London are paid £18 an hour after two years of service, which more closely reflects the difficulties and pressures that come with the job.

The Union contrasted the pay of bus drivers with that paid to National Express, saying that - over the last 10 years - National Express paid its CEO an average annual salary of £2.6 million.

What has National Express West Midlands said about the pay dispute?

A spokesperson for National Express West Midlands said: “Drivers rejected the improved offer of a 14.3% pay increase along with increases to Christmas and New Year’s pay and accident pay. The package would have brought an experienced driver salary up to nearly £33k, and unlocked more than £900 of back pay for a full time driver.”

The bus operator said it has seen a huge increase in applications for bus driver jobs since the start of the industrial action. The company said that in an average week the bus operator receives 140 applications a week. But in the last week - since the strikes were announced - there has been a record 393 applications.

To find out information on bus services running in the West Midlands, please check the Transport for West Midlands website