A "frustrated" NZ Bus protestor and a Ritchies replacement driver operating on their route got into a physical altercation today when protestors brought a bus to a stop in Auckland.
Auckland commuter Chris Nye-Browne said he had "an eventful morning" on his way to work as his bus driver got off the bus and into a "scuffle" with those protesting at the intersection of Balmoral and Dominion roads.
NZ Bus drivers began strike action last week by giving away free fares, before the company said it would cancel services.
Drivers have taken to the streets, demanding fair pay and conditions.
Ritchies drivers have replacement services running in place of those taking strike action.
But things got physical this morning when protestors blocked off the Auckland intersection then got into an argument with the replacement driver, Mr Nye-Browne said.
He called the incident "very unusual" and like no other protest he'd seen in Auckland.
He caught a bus at Dominion Road in Mt Eden this morning. "It was absolutely rammed, totally crowded," he said.
When the bus approached the Balmoral crossroads, heading towards the city, the driver radioed that there were some "scabby bus drivers ahead".
Mr Nye-Browne said there were about 100 protestors - angry and chanting - at all four corners. The bus came to a stop as they blocked the road.
"I don't think the bus driver had a choice [but to stop] or he would run people down," Mr Nye-Browne said.
"A couple opened the doors [from the outside] and said, 'Get off our route, get off our route.'"
The bus driver kept closing the doors, but the protestors carried on, he said.
"Our bus driver tried to physically attack one who kept opening the door. They got into a bit of a scuffle," Mr Nye-Browne said, adding that other protestors pulled them apart.
"In no way were the protestors scary. It was a mildly intimidating situation ... It was a weird vibe."
Mr Nye-Browne said protestors also approached passengers telling them about their cause in wanting to be paid a living wage. They were polite to passengers.
Realising the bus wasn't going anywhere, he eventually got off and walked for about 20 minutes before catching another bus to work.
"It was an eventful morning," he said. "Some people were taking pictures and videos and some asked if they should call police."
FIRST Union secretary for transport, logistics, operations and manufacturing Jared Abbott said, "Seeing a NZ Bus replacement service being operated by un-unionised bus drivers from Ritchies Transport, frustrated workers stopped the bus and an argument began with the driver of the Ritchies bus".
"The drivers were particularly insulted that the services were being operated by Ritchies Transport, an anti-union employer who has agreed to provide what they considered unethical labour to the Auckland Council in an attempt to sweep the wider employment issues with NZ Bus drivers under the carpet," Mr Abbott said.
"It is generally frowned upon within the union movement to provide a replacement workforce to operate services during a strike, suspensions or a lockout, and bus drivers wanted to let the public know that this was happening. We apologise for any inconvenience caused to those passengers on the replacement service this morning."
Differing from Mr Nye-Browne's estimate, he said there were about 30 protestors at the intersection.
Mr Abbott said drivers and union officials continued to meet with NZ Bus and were seeking fair negotiations that get the drivers back on the road. As it stands, over 800 drivers remain suspended without pay by NZ Bus.
Questions sent to Ritchies about the incident were passed on to Bus and Coach Association chief executive Pim Borren, who said he didn't have information about the specific incident.
He referred questions to an earlier press release which said, "Auckland bus operators are enraged at the inconvenience to passengers affected by continued bus driver strike action".
"First Union’s statements that drivers are being unfairly treated and losing income before Christmas is also nonsense. The union is paying the drivers to strike and clearly have no regard for the impact this has on passengers. Meanwhile, bus operators are unable to provide bus services and are losing income as a result of the union's actions.
"Auckland bus companies have had enough of the misinformation the First and Tramways unions are spreading," he said, adding there "had never been a better time to be a bus driver" in citing increased wages over the past five years.
He also said the split shift issue was "a reality of our industry".
"There have always been split shifts and all drivers are aware of those when they choose to apply for the job.
"Getting people to work is an essential service. We can’t simply shut down Auckland city’s entire economy because of two militant unions which have gone off the rails.
"They have even organised blockades on other bus operators’ depots. They have no concern for the public at this busy time of year and are happy to disrupt and undermine so many businesses through the Christmas period. This will have a significant impact on all parts of Auckland’s economy, including retail."
Additional reporting by Sam Wat