More trouble looms for Auckland commuters after NZ Bus drivers vowed to take industrial action even if it provokes the company into locking them out.
The company denies even hinting at locking out its 900 or so unionised Auckland drivers, as it did for seven days in a bitter pay dispute three years ago.
But almost 700 of the drivers at a stopwork meeting yesterday voted by a 97 per cent majority to reject a company pay offer and serve notice of a "work to rule" campaign, despite advice from union leaders to keep the possibility of a lockout in mind.
"The gloves are off," one First Union delegate said after the meeting, which halted the company's 70 per cent share of Auckland's scheduled bus services for more than five hours from 11am.
School buses were driven by non-union drivers and most commuters appeared to have got the message to make other travel plans, although some casual passengers were stranded at bus stops left without posters to tell them of the disruption.
Young mother Danielle Rocque was annoyed at having to call a taxi for herself and 7-month-old Moses, and a Weekend Herald reporter had to use informal sign-language to tell an elderly Chinese woman there would be no buses for four more hours.
Trains were "chocker" for about three hours from 1pm, said one Britomart official, although the station was back to normal passenger numbers by about 4pm when the buses started running again.
Although the company blamed the timing of the stopwork meeting for the disruption, Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt said it was given three days' notice to ensure notices went up on all buses and stops.
He said the parties had been close to a deal including an offer of a 6.6 per cent wage rise in instalments over 27 months, which made it all the more disappointing that the company would not budge on penal rates for "cancelled days off".
There had been calls from drivers at the meeting to demand the offered wage increase - from $18.75c to $20 an hour - immediately rather than wait until 2014 for the final instalment.
Mr Froggatt described the work-to-rule, to start the week after next, as "low-level industrial action".
But he acknowledging that measures such as taking five minutes on terminal duties at the end of each trip could cause logistical difficulties for the company.
He also accepted the company had taken a far less "combatant" stance this year than it did in 2009, but said it was important for the drivers to be aware of its right under industrial law to lock them out.
NZ Bus chief operations officer Shane McMahon defended the pay offer, saying it was being made in difficult times.
"Times are tough right now with unemployment at 6.8 per cent and the offer tried to move wages forward, while still remaining competitive and ensuring job security for our people."
He acknowledged the company made a profit of $46 million in the last financial year, but said it invested about $60 million over that period in new Auckland buses.