Around 400 Unite members at Go North West’s Queen’s Road bus garage in north Manchester have been on indefinite strike since 28 February against the use of #FireAndRehire to force them on to much worse contracts. Local trade unionist Ian Allinson explains what is going on and argues that the strike has a wide significance.
Go North West is part of the Go Ahead group, which runs bus services in many parts of England, including under other brand names, as well as Govia Thameslink and Southeastern railways. Go Ahead took over the giant Queen’s Road garage in Manchester’s Cheetham Hill from First Bus in 2019. The depot has been well-unionised and set a benchmark for pay and conditions for many years – which Go North West want to break.
In 2020 the company tried to impose cuts to pay and conditions by firing and rehiring staff, and suspended a Unite union rep. While workers were going through the slow and bureaucratic process of balloting for industrial action, community supporters responded with blockades. While police prevented people from obstructing the garage exits directly, protesters copied the ‘slow walking’ tactics pioneered by anti-fracking activists. Unite’s leverage team got involved, and when the workers delivered a hefty strike vote Go North West backed off. The rep went back to work and the threat to dismiss the entire workforce was lifted while negotiations took place.
Go Ahead claim that the Queen’s Road garage was losing money, and they had to cut costs. Drivers are sceptical, not least because Go Ahead is profitable and its directors seem to be doing just fine. They also believe that Go Ahead is able to manipulate costs between different depots.
More fundamentally, there is vast public support for driving the privateer companies out of public transport. Companies received massive public subsidies even before Covid, yet provide expensive and inadequate services. Greater Manchester is expected to become the first English region outside London since the 1980s to have regulated public transport, but the proposed franchise system would only bring it into line with London. The proposal wouldn’t come in for years anyway – this is nowhere near radical enough – we need a massively expanded public transport system to tackle the climate crisis. There’s certainly no justification for bailing out the privateers’ profits at workers’ expense.
Unite offered big concessions in the negotiations, but this wasn’t enough for Go Ahead, who reissued the notice to fire and rehire the workforce in order to force through the changes they want. These include pay cuts of £2500 per year, a 10% reduction in staffing, dramatic cuts to sick pay, and huge changes to scheduling. At the moment, workers drive for two and a half hours to a terminus, have a five-minute break to stretch the legs and maybe use the toilet, then two and a half hours back. Go Ahead wants to introduce circular routes, expecting workers to drive for five hours without a break. The breaks and access to toilets are vital for workers’ health, to reduce the risks of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), back problems, prostate and bladder problems. Management want to cut meal breaks too, so workers would get less than half an hour in the canteen. Talks went on for most of a year, but the company was intransigent and reissued the fire and rehire notices, prompting a fresh strike ballot which sailed past the undemocratic thresholds in the anti-union legislation.
Facing the ticking clock of dismissal, workers have gone for the strongest action available within the law – a continuous indefinite strike, staying out till they win. Indefinite strikes are rare – the last one I can remember in Manchester was by UNISON mental health workers in 2007. This is one of the reasons why the strike is attracting so much support and solidarity. There’s general public anger against the spread of the fire and rehire tactic, reflected in Unite’s decision to increase strike pay to £70 a day for members fighting fire and rehire during the pandemic. There are also public health implications of cutting sick pay during a pandemic, pressuring workers to avoid getting tested and to work when they should be isolating. Concerns have been increased by Covid safety failures on scab services, with some drivers lacking screens or masks and too many passengers being allowed on board.
Transport workers in particular know that the outcome of the dispute will have a knock-on effect elsewhere, fearing a race to the bottom on pay and conditions accelerated by the impact of Covid on passenger numbers. In London, the tendering process encourages bus companies to compete by cutting costs at workers’ expense. Companies also use franchise changes or the movement of drivers between garages or routes to impose new contracts piecemeal. Some drivers in London have been striking in defence of pay, hours and conditions. And of course action by transport workers has been needed to win effective Covid safety measures to protect themselves and the public.
The Friday before the strike started, supporters surprised management with another slow-walking blockade. The workers have set about the strike with high participation and great organisation – sending a clear signal to Go Ahead that they are out to win. The road is well decorated with Unite flags, there are gazebos and marquees, portaloos, a gas barbecue, food warmers, a generator, hot food and drink, and a brazier donated by the victorious Rolls Royce Barnoldswick strikers. Go Ahead is making no attempt to run bus services from Queen’s Road during the strike, but the picket line is serving as a base for sending people out and about monitoring the scabbing operation and campaigning.
Go Ahead is running its in-house scabbing operation from the Heywood Distribution Park, between Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. The site houses huge warehouses used by logistics companies, some of which are also organised by Unite. The scab service recently saw disruption when local supporters took their permitted daily exercise by blockading buses leaving for their first journeys of the day.
There aren’t enough managers and scabs to cover the normal operation, so Go Ahead has been subcontracting services to other companies. Vehicles and drivers are being drawn in from across England and Wales in an attempt to break the strike. This has already led to major problems including the use of inaccessible vehicles, failure to observe Covid safety rules, and dangerous driving. Supporters have begun targeting the strike-breaking subcontractors too. When scab services are disrupted it costs Go Ahead money. When the subcontractors’ other services are disrupted it makes them less willing to continue strike-breaking.
Unite and the company have been holding talks facilitated by ACAS, but expectations are very low. Unusually, Unite paused its own leverage campaign for the talks despite there being no substantive movement from the employer. If they aren’t productive, talks must not be allowed to distract from putting maximum pressure on the employer.
The support from the community and the labour movement has been magnificent. Locals have been making food for the picket line. Posters and stickers are appearing all along the affected bus routes. Messages of support keep spirits up and donations keep the strikers going. There have been visits to the picket lines by actors and MPs. Alongside the industrial pressure on Go Ahead, the political side of the campaign matters too. Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) have so far been very hands-off from the dispute, though they did announce an investigation after complaints around accessibility and Covid safety breaches. Behind TfGM stand the ten Greater Manchester local authorities, eight of which are Labour-controlled. So far, Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor, has not come out in support of the workers.
The reliance on scabs from round the country raises the question of spreading action beyond Manchester to target other aspects of Go Ahead’s operations. It’s clear that Go Ahead regards this dispute as strategically important and key decisions are being taken above the level of the North West operation.
For further information and practical details of how to support the strike, see the page set up by Manchester trades council: www.manchestertuc.org.uk/nogo.