Auckland bus drivers have been in dispute with the companies operating the public transport service for several weeks. Last week the drivers for one of the companies, Howick and Eastern, declared, not for the first time, they would handle no cash on their day of action on Thursday, letting passengers ride for free. This tactic has received far less critical attention than it deserves.

Two weeks earlier, when the First Union adopted the tactic, its bus organiser, Rudd Hughes, told the Herald, "We don't have much in our arsenal so we have got to use what we can without punishing the passengers." They do not have much in their arsenal, as they had discovered earlier, on February 19, when the Tramways Union simply went on strike, taking 70 per cent of Auckland's bus services off the road that day. Chaos was expected but it did not happen. Commuters made other arrangements and, by and large, the roads were no more congested than usual. In fact, the traffic seemed to flow better for the absence of buses.

Howick and Eastern buses were among a minority still operating that day. Mr Hughes said, "We set up a walking picket and they just drove straight through." Then he said, "We've got other things we can do apart from strike action."

Those things could include not taking fares and not turning on the consoles that are used to store information for Auckland Transport. For the day of action on March 3, First Union members announced they would not demand cash fares from passengers boarding without AT's hop card. Doubtless not many passengers used their cards that day. Last Thursday the union refused to take cash or cards. Everyone could ride for free if they were so inclined.

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If this is a legitimate tactic in industrial disputes, it should not be. Employees do not own the employer's product. The First Union's action is effectively giving away the goods or service that is the employer's property. It is as though staff at Bunnings, who have also been in dispute with their employer lately, told customers they could take goods through the checkout on a given day without paying for them.

It would not happen in the private sector of course, and it should not happen in a public service. Auckland bus operators are private companies contracted to run AT's desired services. The services are heavily subsidised from Auckland Council rates and national road taxes, and doubtless the loss of fare revenue Howick and Eastern has suffered on two days this month will be made up from AT's coffers, though it should not be. The whole purpose of contracting these services to private companies is that they are supposed to be efficient in the way they employ all the resources a bus needs.

If AT declined to compensate Howick and Eastern for this loss, it could be salutary for the company and the union. The company assuredly would not again put its buses on the road if its drivers were refusing to take fares, and inconvenienced passengers would have little difficulty deciding which side was to blame.