Nearly 500 Manchester bus drivers employed by Go North West are facing the threat of being fired and rehired, with a 10% reduction in the number of drivers employed, an increase in unpaid working hours and drivers’ conditions slashed.
Go Ahead is a transport multinational with rail and bus interests in UK, Germany, Norway and Singapore. They acquired the former First Bus depot which serves North Manchester in 2019. As Go Ahead North West, they announced their intention of introducing cost cutting and began discussions with the drivers’ union, Unite.
In 2020 with the pandemic in full swing they suspended the Unite branch chair based on trivial social media allegations and issued a Section 188 notice, which would have resulted in the workforce being fired and then rehired. In protest at both actions, and for several weeks, the depot was picketed unofficially in the early mornings by sympathetic trade union activists, and buses were severely delayed. This was with the tacit support of drivers who repeatedly gave us the thumbs up. During this period Unite pursued ‘leverage’ actions – protests at shareholders’ and other events – and the drivers held an indicative ballot which produced a 90+% vote for action. The unofficial action ceased in order to allow discussions to continue; the branch chair was eventually reinstated but now, in January 2021, Go Ahead NW have carried out their earlier threat and issued a Section 188.
This would see existing shift patterns ripped up; workers would be nearly £2,500 a year worse off as they would be forced to work longer hours for no additional pay. The company is also proposing to tear up the existing sick pay agreement – mid-pandemic – which would result in workers being forced to attend work when they were sick or should be self-isolating.
Unite has not yet declared a dispute but it seems inevitable that they will have to. When that happens it is vital that plans are laid for success as this is a ‘must-win’ dispute, and needs maximum impact at the depot itself but also a wide campaign within the city and beyond.
This will not be easy or simple. Unite has recently achieved a good result for members at Rolls Royce in nearby Lancashire but this employer will be a tough nut to crack. The company are clearly determined and have consciously chosen the depths of the pandemic to attack their workforce, at a time when services and revenue are reduced anyway. Under Covid restrictions the company will seek to use the police to minimise the effects of picketing.
Given the result of the earlier ballot, Unite will be confident that a positive result for strike action can be achieved but it will need to be worked for, using social media, online meetings as well as leafletting.
If, as is likely, there is a vote for strike action Unite may opt to undertake a one-day action to test the company and rally the membership. But it is likely that only all-out action would meet the needs of the situation, and the worst approach would be to organise a succession of one-day strikes which sap the members’ energy and create confusion. Should any scab drivers attempt to take buses out, last September’s events showed that it is possible to organise effective delaying activity in a legal and socially distanced way, and there is a solid cohort of activists, many of them Unite members in other workplaces, who would engage.
‘Fire and re-hire’ is widely seen as a despicable attack and widespread public support could be marshalled, all the more so under Covid where bus drivers are increasingly recognised as ‘key workers’. No less than 30 of them lost their lives driving London’s buses until they took matters into their own hands and banned cash transactions and front entry. Manchester Trades Council, which played a good role in mobilising solidarity of other workers last autumn, would be well placed to do so again. For the Rolls Royce workers Unite held a socially distanced motorcade around East Lancashire which ended in an open air rally and could consider repeating the tactic here.
There is a political dimension which could be developed too. A public consultation is under way called ‘Doing Buses Differently’ given the prospect that the Greater Manchester Combined Authority will in future have the franchise for buses and will contract with the operators. This dispute is an opportunity for Andy Burnham, as Greater Manchester Mayor, to make it clear to the bus companies that a race to the bottom is not going to happen in the city.
Socialist Alternative supporters in Manchester and the North West offer 100% solidarity to the Go Ahead drivers and will make every effort to support them in their campaign. We stand for returning public transport to local authorities, and the nationalisation, under workers’ control and management, of the whole transport system. We need an integrated public transport system based on the latest pollution and carbon-free technologies, stripped of profiteering and able to meet the needs of the people and the planet.