Earlier this year, 400 bus workers based at the Queens Road depot in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, voted to go on an all-out strike.
This came after their employer – Go North West – attempted to terminate the drivers’ contracts and rehire them on inferior ones. The new contracts would have amounted to a £2,500 per annum pay cut, alongside worse terms and conditions.
The proposed measures included reducing the number of drivers and tearing up sick pay allowances. This would have forced these key frontline workers to continue coming in when they should have been off sick or isolating during the pandemic.
Some drivers were initially pressured into signing the new contracts, and two reps were sacked as part of this process of bullying and intimidation.
Fire and rehire – dubbed ‘industrial terrorism’ by Unite the Union, which organises these workers – is the new favourite tactic of the bosses in carrying out attacks on pay and conditions, in order to boost profits.
Reportedly, Go Ahead (the parent company of Go North West) made £12.3 million profit on its local bus services over the past year.
On top of this, the company has received £218.4 million of subsidies from the government in order to keep the buses running in the face of low passenger numbers during the pandemic.
So we can see very clearly that Go Ahead certainly isn't hurting for cash. Nevertheless, the opportunity to break a union and further drive down costs is always a tempting one for the bosses.
The company went to great expense to mount an extensive strike-breaking operation, in an attempt to minimise the impact of the strike. This involved drafting in a host of contractors to cover affected routes.
This ‘rogue’ bus service ignored safety procedures without any pushback. This included allowing severe overcrowding on their buses during the height of the pandemic.
Striking workers, meanwhile, were threatened with disciplinary action. In order to slander the drivers, the local press and the BBC even reported pictures (of suspect origin) that supposedly showed vandalism by strikers against scabs. This shows whose side the so-called ‘impartial’ press are really on.
Victory for the workers
Despite these vicious tactics by the bosses, this determined strike action by the bus drivers has now forced the employers to totally scrap the new contracts. In addition, the two sacked union reps will be reinstated.
Fittingly enough, news of this victory coincided with May Day, where the striking drivers led the local march.
There are still some details to work out. Unite’s negotiating team are currently going over the specifics of the deal. This will then be put to union members to discuss and vote on before any return to work.
It is understood that the union has agreed to accept some cost-saving measures. These are likely to affect break times and sick pay.
Nevertheless, while the settlement negotiated by the union won’t be perfect, it will likely be welcomed as a huge improvement on the defeated contracts, and will rightly be seen as a hard-earned victory for the workers.
Support and solidarity
The drivers have shown enormous strength and resolve in defeating these attacks. More people have joined the strike than left it. And those on picket lines have been buoyed by support from the local community and labour movement.
For example, throughout the strike, marches were staged through the working-class neighbourhood of Cheetham Hill. These attracted lots of positive support from the public.
Local labour movement activists have stepped up to support the bus drivers. To avoid charges of secondary picketing, concerned members of the community chose to take ‘daily exercise trips’ outside locations where scab services were operating from, thereby preventing buses from leaving.
@PplsAssemblyMcr cavalcade in support of @unitetheunion members working for @gnwbus who are on strike over fire and rehire. 03.04.2021. Huge local support was witnessed on the march around Cheetham Hill. #JoinAUnion #solidarity pic.twitter.com/NZTjBO91ja— NeilTerryPhotography (@NT_photos) April 4, 2021
Unite has also achieved some political victories around the strike. For example, Manchester City Council passed a motion to terminate contracts with any companies who use ‘fire and rehire’. In addition, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, declared that Manchester buses would be brought under partial public control through franchising.
This falls short of actual public ownership, however, and won’t be fully introduced until 2025. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority will be able to set fares, timetables, and routes, thus integrating the network. But parasitical private companies will still own and operate the buses – and they will control the wages of their staff.
This bus strike presented an opportunity to broaden and generalise the fight against fire and rehire. And the campaign waged by Unite against this hateful practice – locally and nationally – is an important step forward in this respect.
But this victory must now be built on, and used as an example for other workers to follow.
Unite must begin by pledging to support any workforce facing similar fire-and-rehire tactics. Where necessary, this should include calling solidarity action, coordinated with other union branches.
And finally, pressure must be put on the Labour leadership to back such action. We need a mass, militant campaign across the whole labour movement against the bosses’ offensive.
Ultimately this is both an industrial and a political struggle – something to keep in mind in light of the Unite leadership race that is currently taking place.
The trade unions and the Labour Party need a militant leadership; one that will fight uncompromisingly for the interests of the working class, including demands for nationalisation and workers’ control.
Enormous discontent is brewing within the working class – both unionised and otherwise. What is needed is bold leadership and a militant strategy, in order to direct this discontent against the enemies of our class: the Tories; the bosses; and the whole capitalist system.
The Go North West bus drivers have shown the way forward. Let their success inspire further victories!