Ongoing Manchester bus strike defeats fire and rehire

The ongoing strike at Go North West in Manchester, now in its tenth week, is already the longest bus strike in British history, but has defeated fire and rehire and seems poised for a significant victory if the pressure can be maintained. Ian Allinson, who has been involved in organising solidarity for the strike, explains what has been happening and suggests some lessons that can be learned from the dispute.

March with banners reading 'end fire & rehire' and 'Unite Queen's Road branch'

My previous article explained the initial stages of the dispute. In summary, Go North West (GoNW) wanted to slash the pay and conditions of drivers at the huge Queen’s Road depot in north Manchester. GoNW is part of the Go Ahead group which runs bus services in many parts of England, rail services in London and the South East, and operations in several other countries. Though Unite offered concessions worth over £1m (an issue to which we shall return), GoNW wanted more and attempted to get it using #FireAndRehire. They forced workers to attend 1-1 meetings without union representation, gave them just seven days to sign or be sacked, and promised that those who signed quickly would get the pick of the rosters. Shift patterns are critical for drivers’ work to be bearable. The Go Ahead group, of which GoNW is part, is profitable and has received considerable government funding during the pandemic.

Fire and rehire, more formally known as dismissal and re-engagement, is a process where an employer gives notice to dismiss its workforce (or, as at Goodlord, to end fixed term contracts) and offers them employment on less favourable terms. Though there have been examples of workers refusing the new contracts, it is more common for unions to advise workers to sign the new contracts while fighting to overturn them. This is what happened in the GoNW case. The TUC estimates that nearly 10% of workers have been subject to fire and rehire during the pandemic and unions are calling for the process to be outlawed, as it is in many countries.

The workers voted overwhelmingly to strike and decided to take continuous indefinite strike action, which started on 28 February, planning to stay out until they won. We are now in the tenth week of the strike, making it the longest bus strike in British history.

Last week saw a breakthrough in the strike, when the Go Ahead group decided to make a new offer to settle it. Speaking at a rally opposite the bus depot at the end Manchester’s International Workers’ Day march, the Unite branch chair, Colin Hayden:

We have had a document from London, from the Go Ahead group … It says fire and rehire has been withdrawn. It says fire and rehire contracts have been null and void. The two members that we are standing with to get them re-engaged in employment have been guaranteed their jobs offered back. The sham, bogus disciplines that the company intended to undertake once we went back to work have been scrapped.

There are two things that motivate an employer: profit and fear. We put fear in front of their profit

Colin made clear that the deal is not done yet and that those declaring victory were premature. Reports of victory are undermining the current re-ballot that is essential to keep the pressure on. The strike continues until members have agreed a deal, not before. The reps had not yet had the opportunity to go through the written offer, let alone put it to members to vote on, but it appears to represent a major retreat by the company, if the details can be satisfactorily resolved. The process of resolving the details is proving difficult. The GoNW bosses responsible for the strike have sent the wrong documents to Unite three times now, rather than sticking to what the Go Ahead group promised. Strikers on the picket line are growing impatient and recognise that further pressure may be needed to conclude the dispute.

Before the strike started, Unite had already offered substantial concessions to help keep GoNW ‘competitive’, and these are included in the deal. In some cases Unite had only offered them as temporary concessions for a two-year period, but GoNW has not guaranteed to restore the terms. Unite has promised the drivers support in two years’ time if GoNW fails to restore them. The two year period for this and the pay deal is significant because its end would coincide with Greater Manchester moving to a bus franchising system similar to London, replacing current deregulation, and GoNW would be bidding for routes. As part of the deal, drivers would also drop legal cases against the company.

Though the offer isn’t perfect even if the details are resolved, it would still represent a big win for a major defensive strike. This should be widely publicised. It shows that workers can fight off fire and rehire threats, even during the pandemic. Crucially, the workers would be ending the strike having proved that they can sustain action and with morale high. Many of the workers had never been on strike before, and very few had taken part in indefinite action. Those who argued the action was futile have been proved wrong. GoNW would be ill-advised to pick another fight with the Queen’s Road drivers. This lesson won’t be lost on workers elsewhere in transport and beyond, and nor will it be lost on other employers.

There were three main components to the struggle: the strike itself, community solidarity action, and Unite’s leverage campaign. Let’s look at each in turn to see what lessons can be learned.

The strike

The fact that Unite paid £70 per day (tax free) strike pay from the central strike fund was a major factor in sustaining the action. Though some workers who do particularly unsocial shifts or lots of overtime earn more than others, there isn’t much variation of normal pay, simplifying financial support. Historically, official strike pay has often been used as a lever by the union bureaucracy to take control of strikes, threatening to stop strike pay if workers reject a deal. To Unite’s credit, strike pay is treated as an entitlement, so it isn’t used in this way.

Unite branches have the option to set up their own fund with members paying extra on top of the standard union subs. The Queen’s Road branch had such a fund and it, along with donations, made a big difference to the running of the strike. The branch was able to rent nearby land to set up marquees, a generator, portable toilets, and a van to transport gear in, and to buy portable cooking equipment and good food for the pickets. If an army marches on its stomach it is no wonder these strikers are holding out so long. But of course a long strike is not a sign of strength, it is a sign that the employer took a long time to realise they needed to settle. So it is worth considering what could have been done to win more, or win more quickly.

GoNW made no attempt to run strike-breaking services from the Queen’s Road depot, instead moving vehicles to other locations for scabs and managers to drive and subcontracting services to other companies who brought in vehicles and scabs from far and wide. GoNW was having to pay strike-breaking subcontractors £1,000 to £1,400 per vehicle per day. In some cases the subcontractors were hiring scabs through employment agencies, circumventing the regulations which ban agencies providing workers to employers facing a strike. The law allows employers to take ‘secondary action’ to break a strike, while making it unlawful for the workers at the subcontractors to strike in support of the GoNW strikers, or for strikers to picket them.

There are arguments in some industries, including parts of transport, that discontinuous strikes are more costly and disruptive than continuous strikes. The strike-breaking operation would have been much more difficult in the case of discontinuous action (e.g. alternate days). However, there were major advantages to the continuous action. It was much simpler to organise, enabled workers to establish a routine and a well-equipped picket, made the strike highly visible across the labour movement, and helped make it a political issue. Continuous action allows strikers to focus on prosecuting the strike rather than having to be in and out of work. It also reduces the risk of management finding excuses on working days to discipline strikers.

A continuous strike creates the potential for spreading action, but the Unite apparatus discouraged workers from even visiting and leafleting other bus garages, claiming they could be accused of secondary picketing. This left strikers relatively passive apart from picketing outside a closed depot, monitoring scab services and speaking at events. Even if Unite wanted to stick within the draconian anti-union laws, it could have systematically encouraged other depots to enter disputes over their own issues. If another Go Ahead depot had taken action, the pressure on the Go Ahead group, which authorised and bankrolled the dispute, would have been multiplied. If a depot of another bus company in Greater Manchester had taken action at the same time then both companies would have struggled to subcontract scab services and there would have been far greater political pressure on Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, who verbally supported the strike but failed to take meaningful action. Had strikers fanned out across Greater Manchester and across the country to build support, workers elsewhere might have been won to taking the opportunity to pursue their own grievances. When the law allows secondary action by employers, unions should not be so passive about spreading action, even if they do so within the law.

There is a connection between a one-workplace approach to industrial action and concession bargaining. If you accept that your job depends on the viability of your employer, there is a logic to accepting cuts to pay and conditions to help keep them afloat and make them competitive. But a wider view shows the problems with concession bargaining – a concession in one workplace puts competitive pressure on other employers to cut pay and conditions too – a race to the bottom which ends with all workers worse off, bosses richer, and no real change to the relative competitiveness of particular workplaces. This is particularly egregious in an industry like public transport, where there is mass public support to bring the lot under public ownership. If bus companies go bust then so much the easier to take them over. But a group of workers at a single bus garage aren’t going to be confident to force the restructuring of their whole industry – that would take a wider struggle. So if we fight workplace by workplace then union activists and members are left trying to resist the worst attacks on pay and conditions while accepting the toxic logic of competitiveness.

There were two fairly clear mistakes made by Unite during the course of the dispute. Firstly, they went into talks facilitated by ACAS after the strike began without the company agreeing to any of the workers’ red lines. GoNW strung these talks out for weeks before letting them collapse. In the meantime Unite had been distracted from prosecuting the campaign effectively, including keeping its leverage campaign on hold, almost certainly making the strike much longer than necessary. This appeared to be connected with the second mistake, which was failing to plan for a re-ballot in good time. The strongest legal protection from dismissal is in the first twelve weeks of a strike. A strike can lawfully continue beyond this point, but unions often avoid it, especially, as in this case, where the employer appears willing to dismiss workers. The union can re-ballot workers to get a new strike mandate, as long as the issues aren’t identical – unions often add an extra issue into the mix when re-balloting. The process normally takes at least five weeks: a week’s notice of ballot, two weeks for voting, and two weeks’ notice of action. In this dispute Unite appeared to take its eye off the ball and didn’t have a new issue ready to ballot on in time, probably because the focus was on the talks. This risked leaving workers with the dilemma of returning to work until the new strike mandate kicked in, or continuing the strike with less legal protection. An employer that knows the twelve week protected period is running out can be increasingly tempted to wait and see what happens rather than settling a dispute, prolonging a strike unnecessarily. The strikers are currently being re-balloted, but the voting period is extremely short, which risks reducing turnout, and the timescale still leaves a four-day gap without the maximum legal protection.

Community solidarity

As well as putting up posters, wearing stickers, making donations, turning up at pickets and marches, and sending messages of solidarity and protest, the strike saw community supporters taking practical action in support of the strike by blockading scab bus depots. This tactic had been pioneered during a strike at the First Bus Rusholme bus depot in 2018, which also saw blockades at Queen’s Road, and then developed further last year before the strike began. Pedestrians would walk backwards and forwards across the exit from the depot, preventing buses from leaving. If the police objected to this tactic, protesters switched to ‘slow walking’ each bus along the road, a tactic copied from anti-fracking activists, who tested it in court.

There were numerous blockades at GoNW’s temporary scab depot at Heywood Distribution Park, as well as at strikebreaking subcontractors Belle Vue and Selwyn’s. Supporters in London blockaded Go Ahead’s Waterloo depot too. In most cases protesters stopped buses for between one and two hours. The actions affected both Go Ahead, who were responsible for any disruption to scab services, and the subcontractors, whose other services were also affected.

Opportunities for solidarity were restricted by both genuine safety concerns around Covid, and by the Coronavirus Regulations which for a time banned safe, masked, distanced, outdoor protests even while millions were in unsafe workplaces. During lockdown the blockades relied on the ‘exercise’ exemption and numbers were limited with people avoiding public transport or sharing vehicles. As lockdown eased, the numbers taking part could increase.

Threats and violence from scabs and their supporters was a bigger problem than the police for the community protesters, as the police usually recognised the legality of the protests. Protesters took to filming the protests in order to protect themselves. GoNW issued a number of smears against strikers which were picked up uncritically by the BBC and Manchester Evening News. After this Manchester TUC published a video they had received anonymously which showed examples of the violence directed towards strike supporters.

The Policing Bill threatens such solidarity action by making protest which ‘risks’ a serious nuisance to a person or business an offence with a sentence of up to ten years in prison. The government knows that the economic situation and escalating climate crisis are going to prompt resistance and they are trying to close the remaining opportunities for effective lawful action. Unions need to step up their opposition to the Bill. If unions won’t look at lawfully spreading action in a dispute like this, we should worry about their ability to take effective action if the law protects the rich and powerful even more completely.

A combination of fear of the anti-union laws, bureaucratic inertia and dysfunctional structures meant Unite was ineffective at organising solidarity other than via social media. The dispute has brought to the fore the importance of groups such as trades councils, the People’s Assembly, Extinction Rebellion and networks of the Labour and radical left who can organise more quickly and freely.

Manchester TUC organised two marches in support of the strike, the first on 3 April, following a People’s Assembly motorcade, and the second on 3 May as part of International Workers’ Day. The marches drew out lots of local support and boosted the morale of strikers.

Leverage

The dispute showed the strengths and weaknesses of Unite’s leverage strategy. Leverage is the term Unite uses for applying pressure on a decision-maker indirectly via secondary targets such as shareholders, customers, suppliers, supply chains, partners, media and politicians, and the individuals associated with all of them, demanding that they take action to bring the dispute to a conclusion. Leverage uses issues other than those in dispute where that is helpful. A leverage campaign depends on researching and understanding the target, what is important to them and what their vulnerabilities are. Examples of what Unite’s organising and leverage department did in the GoNW leverage campaign can be found on the Go North West Supporters Page on Facebook.

Probably the two most significant targets in the GoNW leverage campaign were Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor, and Sweden, where Go Ahead wants a huge rail contract.

Though Burnham visited the picket and stated his support, the campaign has not yet been successful in getting him to make a clear pledge to ban companies which used fire and rehire from getting contracts when bus franchising is introduced in two years’ time. It didn’t help that Unite appeared to be facing two ways, with the organising and leverage department piling the pressure on Burnham while other parts of the union apparatus saw unconditional support for Labour as their priority. Steve Turner, one of the Assistant General Secretaries seeking nomination to be Unite’s next General Secretary, was quoted by Huffington Post undermining the campaign by saying:

‘I want to see Labour councillors elected on May 6. I want to see Labour mayors. And it frustrates me, it angers me sometimes, that some of the union’s campaigning right now is pitched against our Mayors, against Sadiq and Andy Burnham. What’s that all about? I find that incredible that we would do that’.

The pressure via Sweden, where fire and rehire is illegal, appears to have been a significant factor in forcing Go Ahead towards settling the dispute.

There is no doubt that the leverage campaign played an important role in securing the new offer as well as raising the morale of the strikers. But there are lessons to be learned here too. Leverage is resource-intensive and is deployed sparingly. Part of its impact is making a particular employer a ‘cause celebre’ and putting all those associated with it in the spotlight. Leverage was briefly deployed against GoNW in 2020 when they suspended Colin Hayden, the Unite branch chair, and initiated fire and rehire. But when Colin was back at work and fire and rehire was ‘paused’, Unite stopped the leverage. GoNW strung talks out for months and then resumed the fire and rehire at very short notice in January. Presumably the company had used the time to put in place the arrangements for its scabbing operation. Would it have made more sense to continue the leverage until a deal was done rather than stopping once the employer was at the table and giving them time to regroup?

There are elements of a leverage campaign (as with the community solidarity) where needing the element of surprise means actions cannot be organised and advertised publicly. But because the Unite organising and leverage team has a group of dedicated staff who can be quickly, securely and reliably deployed, there is a more general tendency not to involve the workers themselves or community supporters. This has several downsides. It means skilled organisers spending lots of time standing outside buildings holding banners and flags. It misses opportunities to involve more people in a campaign. It undermines workers’ feeling that they won a strike themselves, reinforcing the image of the union as a third party that came to their rescue, undermining future organising efforts. By creating dependence on centrally controlled union resources it gives senior union officials more control over the dispute at the expense of the members. For example, while members will vote on whether to accept the offer, they will do so knowing that if they fight on they will not get to decide whether or not leverage will resume. If Unite provided the research and planning expertise and involved strikers and their supporters in implementing the leverage campaign, workers would learn new campaigning skills and maintain more control over their dispute.

What next?

If the strike does come to a successful conclusion, the top priority should be trumpeting its success from the rooftops. Workers can drive back employers such as GoNW who were prepared to spend a fortune and act unethically in their attempt to break the union and cut pay and conditions. The workers’ decision to fight seriously for a win rather than taking token or protest action, and the organisation of their pickets and protests has been an inspiration.

The example of practical community solidarity, undertaken despite the pandemic and repeated threats and violence, is something to be built on so that any dispute can call on similar support. The strike has turned members into activists. For example, there are now 40-50 strikers asking Unite to arrange a coach to the People’s Assembly demonstration in London on 26 June.

Some of the weaknesses in Unite’s organisation in passenger transport need to be addressed. Now that the Go Ahead group has pledged never to use fire and rehire anywhere in the world, this demand should be raised with every employer. We need serious efforts to unionise coach and bus companies that were, or could be, used for subcontracted scabbing operations. Combine organisation across each company and across the sector needs to be developed so that it can effectively coordinate action rather than leaving any depot to fight alone and can counter the pressure for concession bargaining. This should be linked to redoubling campaigning to bring public transport under public ownership and control and drive the privateers out of the industry. 

Within Greater Manchester, the work Unite has been doing to prepare for bus franchising needs to accelerate. Bus workers in London have grappled with the franchising model for years and moves towards city-wide bargaining have made limited progress. The Greater Manchester Good Employment Charter will not be enough to protect workers whose pay and conditions are in many respects already above that floor. From the big players such as Abellio to the small undercutters, companies are circling in the hope of getting a slice of Greater Manchester’s public transport pie.

With strikes continuing at other workplaces, including the long-running strike at Goodlord and strikes at several London bus companies, we also need to discuss the lessons we can learn from this magnificent strike so that we can win quicker and even bigger in future.

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