Community and the carnivalesque — thoughts on the Manchester bus driver picket line
Originally published in The Meteor, 11 May, 2021.
The picket line outside Queens Road Depot exhibits camaraderie, community and the carnivalesque. Solidarity is undoubtedly strong in the communities supporting the bus drivers in their ‘fire and rehire’ industrial dispute with Go North West.
I’m standing in a small school playing field in Cheetham Hill in north Manchester in April. The lunchtime sun, welcome after a long winter, warms the 150 or so people gathered in good spirits supporting the picket line at the nearby Queens Road bus depot.
Big red marquees stand in one corner, out of which catering services offer hot food and drinks to those in attendance. A ginormous sound system broadcasts comradely calls to inform and entertain the receptive crowd, as performers don costumes in preparation for a theatrical performance, and drivers converse with members of the community.
I’m talking to two Go North West bus drivers who are fed up with the way they have been treated by their employer.
“Bring back First Greater Manchester, all is forgiven,” Sam Harvey, one of them, quips.
Go North West bus drivers employed at Queens Road depot, which the company bought off First in 2019, have been on strike since 28 February, in dispute against the company’s so-called “fire and rehire” practices.
In May last year, the company offered its drivers a one-off payment of £5,000 in return for altering the terms and conditions of their employment, as part of its Reset 2020 plan, devised to stem the company’s annual losses of £1.8 million at the depot.
Unite the Union, which represents the 485 drivers, argues the changes will see drivers £2,500 worse off after three years, and highlight drivers’ sick pay has been drastically reduced in their new employment contracts. Go North West denies it is using fire-and-rehire tactics, claiming the drivers have accepted the new contracts voluntarily.
“They’ve come in and tried steamrolling this new contract through,” Peter says. “They’ve deployed fire and rehire tactics. It feels as if we’re being forced to sign a contract which we don’t want to sign.”
Sam chimes in again. “It was a case of either sign up or lose your new job, so I don’t think that’s a true reflection of what has actually happened at the depot. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, when jobs are hard to come by, you know, you’re not going to leave it, you’re going to be forced to sign that contract.
“For our industrial action ballot, 82% of drivers voted in favour of the strike. That shows they signed the contracts under duress.”
Sam thanked members of the public affected by the strike for their patience. “We are sorry for the inconvenience, but we really have to stand up for ourselves, we really have to fight.
“We are not just doing it for us, we are doing it for other bus drivers and other employees in Manchester and across the country, because if fire and rehire is allowed to happen here it’ll happen elsewhere.
“Employers will see they can do it, and it will start a race to the bottom. We have had a lot of support from the public. We just hope they’ll continue to support us until we win.”
Civic pride and community
I ask them what this job and their workplace means to them. “I’ve been at this depot for nine years,” Peter tells me. “My dad’s worked here twenty odd years. It holds a special place in my heart this depot. To see the way it’s going at the moment — it’s upsetting really.” His remarks suggest there is something else at play; beyond the need to achieve rights and recognition, a distinctive local identity and cultural history around transport has been put into question by the dispute.
Greater Manchester has much to be proud of when it comes to public transport. In 1824, John Greenwood started the UK’s first regular horse bus service from Pendleton, Salford to Market Street, Manchester. The region also boasts of having created the world’s first completely steam powered inter-city passenger railway service in 1830, running from Manchester to Liverpool.
“Before the growth of towns and cities, people walked, or if better off, rode a horse or travelled by carriage,” George Turnbull, Head of Collections Management at the Museum for Transport, which shares the same building as Queen’s Road Depot, tells me.
“With the industrial revolution, people moved to the towns for work, and transport became more critical.
In 1901, the first electric tram depot in Manchester opened at Queens Road depot, with routes operating between Albert Square and Cheetham Hill, and trams weaving their way out to the south Manchester suburbs of Chorlton-cum-Hardy.
They were swiftly followed by buses, competing for tram passengers. The expanding city built slum replacement “overspill”, estates such as Wythenshawe, Hattersley, or Langley, all requiring trams or buses to take people to workplaces, shops or recreational facilities.
“There was also an element of civic pride” around buses, George says, when in the 1940s the city region replaced trams with buses systematically. “If other cities replaced trams, Manchester and Salford did not want to be left behind.”
George’s comments allow me to grasp the broader significance of the strike, that Britain’s industrial history is rooted in communities like this one. On reflection, the ambience of the strike seemed vibrantly intergenerational, the fight for decent working conditions entwined with a deeper sense of home and heritage.
2021 also marks the centenary that a trade union representing bus drivers has been operating out of Queens Road Depot. The histories of Manchester’s transport, communities and organised labour are deeply entwined.
We need a hero
“We wanted to put on a show,” says Pascale Robinson, a public transport campaigner, as she pulls a big travel suitcase behind her as we walk up the road to the depot to visit the picket line.
“We didn’t just want to give speeches,” she remarks. “We wanted to do something a little different for the drivers.”
Not much unites council leader Richard Leese and Manchester Momentum. But both agree with Sam that Go North West drivers have been let down. In April, Manchester City Council passed a motion condemning Go North West for “fire and rehire” tactics. This particular Saturday in mid-April, the day I’m speaking to Sam and Peter, Manchester’s activist community has come out to show solidarity.
The stage is set. An accordion plays, and a man in a ghastly fat cat costume, brandishing a suitcase of money and a copy of The Sun newspaper, struts onto the scene.
“Out of the hellish depths themselves, Nigel Featham!” The narrator bellows, as the fat cat managing director leers at the audience.
“We need a hero — in fact, we need loads of heroes,” the narrator announces. “We need some heroes who are willing to be on strike for at least seven weeks, and counting. A cheer for the union!”
A man in a red T-shirt vanquishes the greedy fat cat with a Unite flag. The moment is as carnivalesque as it is cathartic, transforming despondency into a moment of hope for all — except, perhaps, for Nigel.
The exuberance shows Go North West’s actions have strengthened solidarity in the communities supporting the strikers in their struggle for fair working conditions.