Originally published in Tribune magazine, 22 May, 2021.
After 85 days on strike, Manchester’s bus drivers have forced corporate giant Go Ahead to abandon its plans to fire and rehire almost 500 workers — it’s a victory not only for them, but for workers across the country.
Throughout the pandemic, many have paid tribute to key workers for keeping the country running. But not Nigel Featham, Managing Director of Go North West.
Last year, Featham’s company announced Reset 2020, a plan to stem its alleged annual losses of £1.8 million at Queens Road Depot in north Manchester. As part of the plan, Go North West intended to tear up the existing work contracts of the company’s 485 drivers and re-employ them on worse terms. The proposed changes included rolling out ‘flexible working’, with a whole host of new rostering and holiday agreements introduced; and extending drivers’ working hours for no additional pay — terms which bus drivers simply could not accept.
Go North West attempted to sugarcoat the proposed terms by offering drivers a one-off payment of £5,000 in return for accepting terms. Unite exposed this odious sleight of hand by pointing out the changes would have resulted in a reduction to the overall wages of their members by an estimated £2,000 a year, meaning that within three years its members would have been worse off.
Featham set the drivers deadlines, sometimes of just a few days, to accept their new contracts or find a new job. The people who had risked their lives to ensure that Manchester kept moving throughout the pandemic suddenly found themselves facing unemployment. In response to this act of industrial blackmail, 82% of the 485 drivers voted to go on strike in February. Lasting 85 days, the strike was one of the longest in the history of Unite and the longest in recent history for the entire passenger transport sector.
After considerable pressure, negotiations began again in April and last weekend Unite and Go North West reached a deal. The deal is a win for the drivers, not least because it contains a promise from both Go North West and Go Ahead Group (Go North West’s parent company) that they will not use fire and rehire in future — a historic victory in the context of its widespread imposition elsewhere. Drivers will also maintain control of rosters, and, crucially, they have secured pay rises, underlining the point that collective bargaining power is the most important determinant of pay.
‘Commitment from the very top in every aspect of the organisation meant we could run a diverse campaign guided by the most senior officials in all departments,’ a Unite official explained to Tribune. ‘It meant we could set up a strike hardship fund which we used to support workers financially throughout the strike, a legal department scrutinising every move the employer made, a political department that tied in with local and national politicians, and a digital communications team.’
As well as the commitment of Go North West workers to the strike — and to the picket line — support from officers also saw Unite launch a highly effective leverage campaign. This piled pressure on Go North West by targeting Go Ahead Group’s operations at home and abroad. The campaign also saw the involvement of heavy hitters like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Andy Burnham and Paul Dennett, who hold considerable sway in regional politics. Combined with tireless organising of branch reps on the ground, this access to resources empowered the drivers.
There are lessons here for the way pressure can be applied in fire and rehire cases, particularly in the transport sector. But not all unions have Unite’s resources. ‘That’s why unions must work collaboratively,’ the official said, ‘so that workers’ protection going forward is the same irrespective of what union you’re in. The only way we can do that is to bring changes to the statute books. The legislation is still there, the war against fire and rehire still needs to be taken up and unions need to work collaboratively on this.’
The rapid spread of ‘fire and rehire’ practices means this win possesses a broader political significance. It is a symbolic victory, not just for the Queens Road Depot bus drivers, but for workers throughout the country. In April, British Gas disgracefully sacked hundreds of engineers after a prolonged strike for refusing to accept new work contracts. TUC research suggests that one in ten workers has had to experience their bosses attempting to fire and rehire them.
But Manchester’s bus drivers have shown that it is not inevitable. ‘That strength of our members,’ Unite told Tribune, ‘has shown bosses there is pain if they attempt to fire and rehire employees, and shown workers that when they stand together they can be victorious — even against the most atrocious and hostile act of industrial vandalism.’
If the drivers had succumbed, and the changes had been forced through, it could have started a race to the bottom on workers’ rights right across the sector. ‘If they could have got away with it here, other bus companies would have attempted to follow suit,’ the official said. Although this particular dispute was with one employer, ultimately this fight was not.
The strike is thus a victory for organised labour more broadly. The law might not be on workers’ side. But if a small depot in Manchester can bring an international corporation to its knees, and make it pledge never to use fire and rehire again, others can do the same. Fire and rehire can be fought. There is, put simply, power in a union.