Operators hold lives in their hands, work difficult shifts for little reward, but would prefer to avoid strike.

Queen St is drab and windblown, grey and empty when I meet Willie Tafa. He's parked at the stop outside the Civic Theatre but nobody's taking any interest in his bus. It's only 7am. His potential passengers are still finishing their breakfasts at home.

Tafa will be driving out there soon, with the "Not in Service" sign shining above his windscreen. He'll head along Tamaki Dr before turning inland to the leafy streets of Remuera for the 605 route, leaving Lucerne Rd at 7.25.

The brawny Samoan-born 52-year-old is bright-eyed and brilliantined as he flicks the switch to open the door. His shirt is crisply ironed and his smile is wide. If he feels at all intimidated about speaking on behalf of the 1000-odd drivers who work for NZ Bus, he shows no sign of it.

The wage talks for the drivers who heave the big diesel juggernauts around suburban streets have stalled, and the drivers, already on a work-to-rule regime, will strike every Monday from next week.


Auckland Tramways Union president Gary Froggatt, a battle-hardened veteran of half a century on the industrial front-line, has told me Tafa's a good bloke to talk to for an average driver's point of view on the dispute. And he certainly seems to offer that. He's no "smash-the-bosses" firebrand. Indeed, you get the impression that he's not too keen on striking. He's certainly not the only one who hopes it doesn't come to that.

"It's pretty hard at the moment with the rent and the bills and everything," he says. "It's hard for our family and for a lot of the other drivers."

He's talking about what life is going to be like in the short-term when his pay is cut by 20 per cent - the time he's on strike. But the majority vote of union members obviously think it's worth it.

Tafa's been up since 4.30am and won't get home until 7.30pm. Public transport is a peak-hour business, so broken shifts - eight hours of work split into morning and afternoon halves - are an occupational hazard. For the four hours in the middle of the day, he'll hang around the depot, perhaps sleeping in his car; it costs too much in gas to make it worth driving home. For this long day, he'll take home barely $100.

He's been driving buses since 1983, and it shows in the fingertip ease with which he steers the empty, rattling seven-tonne vehicle. He drove here for nine years before seeking the higher wages across the Tasman. When he came back, his mates and colleagues thought he was mad but, he explains, his wife's father was sick and "you only get one set of parents in life".

He says he enjoys the contact with the public and relishes being of service. But he thinks that drivers - or "operators" in the NZ Bus management-speak - are underrated.

"People think it's an easy job, but it's pretty hard. They think we are just sitting there and driving but we're dealing with customers and we have to treat them nice."

The implication is that the occasional customer doesn't deserve to be treated nice at all.

"Some come and hassle you, but we can't do anything back to them. They throw the money or have a bad attitude because they think we are 'just the driver'. But it's a responsible job. We are carrying people's lives - not food or concrete blocks."

Has he been assaulted? "Heaps of times. But" - the smiling eyes sparkle - "I can handle it."

There's not much chance of an assault on the 7.25 from Lucerne Rd. The first passenger is an expressionless lad, immaculate in a King's School uniform, who plays games on his iPhone all the way. A smattering of office workers and intermediate kids follow, rarely more than one person at a stop. The most exciting event is a short-phasing light at the top of Victoria Ave. The passengers further down will be wondering why the bus is late.

When we reach town, and the passengers spill out, Tafa's anxious to know if I have all I need from him. He's keen to please, happy that someone's taking an interest. My day seems a little bigger for having had him in it. And I remind myself to say "thanks, driver", the next time I get off the bus.