On the buses: how the National Union of Railwaymen organised bus workers

This rather beautiful badge is a reminder that the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) was not just about trains. From the 1920s onwards, the union actively recruited and organised bus workers, and by 1950 had nearly 14,500 ‘busmen’, as they were styled, in membership – a small but significant group among the NUR’s total membership of more than 400,000 transport workers.

NUR badge featuring a bus in red enamel and brass within a circle of blue enamel on which the name of the union is picked out in brass

The badge itself is just half an inch in diameter and is intended to be worn in a jacket lapel – the fixing would go through a button hole. Made of brass, highlighted in transparent red and opaque blue enamel, the badge has no manufacturer’s name or other marks.

How the NUR, which had been formed specifically as an all grades union for the railway industry, came to be a major player in the bus industry is a story of deregulation – while the tale of how it retained its presence there long into a time when deregulation had given way to nationalisation is one of both intra- and inter-union politics.

Until 1928, rail companies (responsible both for the trains and the networks they ran on) had been limited by law to operating only those bus services that fed their railway stations. The following year, however, they were given new freedoms to run bus services more generally, and the Big Four (GWR, LNER, LMS and Southern Railway) swiftly acquired a substantial stake in existing bus companies.

Recognising an opportunity, the NUR began recruiting among bus operators now owned by railway companies, and membership grew rapidly.

The move created inevitable tensions with the Transport and General Workers Union, which was and would remain the largest union in the bus industry, and in 1932 the two unions agreed to divide the representation of workers in the rail-owned bus companies between them: the NUR was to be the sole union for busmen in nine companies; three would be shared (Western Welsh, Ribble Motor Services and United Automobile); and the TGWU would be free to organise busmen everywhere else.

Although this agreement settled the relationship between the NUR and TGWU for the time being, the busmen themselves were not entirely satisfied with their existing unions, and there would be a series of attempts to form breakaway bodies. The first of these came in 1938 when a group broke away from the TGWU to form a National Passenger Workers Union; eight years later its members would rejoin the TGWU as individuals.

More seriously, in the autumn of 1950, Fred Baker, secretary of the NUR’s Bournemouth branch, and a member of the union’s national executive, resigned over its failure to guarantee a place on the executive for a busworkers’ representative. Within weeks, 500 of his colleagues working at Hampshire and Dorset Motor Services had followed suit, and established a National Bus Workers Association. The NBA would eventually boast 2,000 members, but proved unable to expand decisively beyond the boundaries of the two counties or gain recognition in its heartlands, and by 1954 had virtually disappeared.   

The third significant split took place in 1969 when the NUR’s Bridgend (Glamorgan) branch broke away over the union’s handling of a local dispute over driver-only buses. Starting life as the Bridgend Busmen’s Association, the union would in 1971 be renamed the National Union of Busmen. However, this new body was short-lived and by the end of the year it had ceased to operate as a trade union, its members joining the TGWU as individuals.

The NUR itself continued in existence until 1990, when it merged with the National Union of Seamen to form the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (commonly known as the RMT). The union continues to organise bus workers today.

Further information

The records of the National Union of Railwaymen and its predecessors can be found in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. Click here to see the catalogue entry

The records of the National Bus Workers Association can also be found in the MRC. Click here to see the catalogue entry

The Railwaymen: The History of the National Union of Railwaymen by Philip Bagwell, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963

‘A union for busmen!’ The National Busworkers’ Association, 1950-1955, by Richard Temple in Labour History Review, Vol. 71, No. 3, December 2006

A Historical Dictionary of Railways in the British Isles, by David Wragg, Barnsley: Wharncliffe Books, 2009, ISBN: 1844680479

Historical Directory of Trade Unions volume 3, by Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan, Aldershot: Gower, 1987, ISBN: 0566021625