Auckland bus drivers turned their back on a $500 sweetener from the region's public transport agency when they rejected advice from union leaders yesterday to accept a new company pay offer.

Emotions ran high at Alexandra Park racecourse after about 55 per cent of almost 650 drivers and cleaners voted by secret ballot to reject the offer from Infratil subsidiary NZ Bus of pay rises amounting to $2 an hour by the final stage of a three-year deal.

That would have lifted the top hourly wage for drivers with nine months' service or more to $17.45 now, $18.15 next year, and $18.75 in February 2012.

Their rejection followed a recommendation to a stopwork meeting by negotiators from four unions to accept the backdated deal - and a contribution by the Auckland Regional Transport Authority of $500 to each worker towards wages lost in a seven-day company lockout last month.

Although that would have cost more than $440,000 in public funds, it compared with about $1.1 million in subsidies the authority withheld from the company for depriving Auckland of 70 per cent of the region's bus services during the lockout.

NZ Bus suspended services again during yesterday's off-peak hours to allow the meeting, but it is unclear whether passengers are in for more disruption soon.

Several drivers stormed out after the vote, complaining it would leave families short of money at Christmas, with no end in sight to their five-month pay dispute.

"We are headed for the tall grass," said North Shore driver Phil Morgan, of the Akarana union, which covers about 220 of the company's 875 Auckland drivers and cleaners.

"They don't care that people are not going to be able to pay mortgages - they should have taken the $500."

Another said he was "dumbstruck" by the decision and a third said the drivers should have accepted the offer before retreating to "fight another day".

But fellow North Shore driver Brian Reierson was proud of his workmates for standing against the offer in the face of financial hardship.

He suggested they offer their services, with the help of the transport authority, to some other bus operator prepared to pay them the $20 or so an hour he believed they were worth.

"They should kick Infratil out," he said.

Veteran Swanson driver William Te Awa said it was time the company stopped "persecuting" its workers and acknowledged its reliance on them to collect its revenue.

Company operations manager Zane Fulljames said the result "completely beggars belief".

"It is immensely disappointing to our customers, our people and the business."

He said the company needed time to consider its position over the next few days before commenting further.

Combined unions spokesman Karl Andersen could not comment on prospects for industrial action, saying his negotiating team would have to "regroup" to consider what to do next.

The deal put to the drivers was the product of "a lot of bargaining, a lot of negotiating - but that's democracy".

"It was knocked back - we'll just have to go back and try again."

Mr Andersen said the authority was to be congratulated for its cash offer, which was aimed not only at compensating the workers for some of their lost wages but also "to bring about a better relationship between the unions and NZ Bus for the future".

Asked about the $500 offer, authority chief executive Fergus Gammie said his organisation could not comment on "commercially confidential" details and was not a party to the negotiations between the company and unions.

But he said of yesterday's vote: "We encourage both parties to settle this situation with urgency in respect of any potential further impact on Auckland's bus commuters."

* Gridlocked

October 15: Buses back on roads after NZ Bus suspends lockout.

October 8: NZ Bus services suspended in response to the notice of strike action from the Auckland Combined Unions.

September 28: Auckland Combined Unions reject a pay increase of 10.4 per cent over three years.

September 7: Dialogue continues between TACL and Cityline NZ Ltd and the union.

September 6: Auckland Combined Unions issues notice of industrial action.

August 4: Service disrupted due to a scheduled stopwork meeting.

June: Transportation Auckland Corporation (TACL) and Cityline NZ Ltd in negotiations with the union representing drivers and cleaners