Unite has launched an international campaign to stop the owners of the Manchester bus company Go North West using Covid-19 as cover to execute what it called plans to “fire and rehire” nearly 500 bus drivers.
Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey wrote to the CEO of Go Ahead Group, Go North West’s parent company, David Brown to warn him that Unite would use all available resources to provide “immediate assistance” to its members.
“In addition to industrial action this will mean exposing your company’s behaviour to all of your stakeholders, partners and associates,” McCluskey said.
In August, The Meteor reported that Go North West, which employs bus drivers in Manchester, had offered drivers a one-off payment of £5,000 in return for altering the terms and conditions of their employment. Unite says the changes would have resulted in a reduction to its members wages by an estimated £2,000 a year, meaning that they would be worse off within three years.
On 12 August, the day of the deadline for Unite to put Go North West’s offer of £5,000 to each driver to its members, the bus operator suspended Unite representative Colin Hayden. Unite alleges that Mr Hayden had been suspended for carrying out trade union activities. Go North West rejects this claim, saying it suspended Mr Hayden in response to a serious complaint against him from one of its drivers. The bus drivers are currently balloting on whether to take industrial action in response to the suspension.
Mr Hayden, as the only union representative not to have been furloughed, had been repeatedly “bullied by senior managers who wanted him to agree cuts without talking to his members”, a Unite spokesperson said. Unite alleges that as part of the representative’s suspension notice the company had banned Mr Hayden from speaking to anyone who worked for Go Ahead, including family members.
Unite’s campaign launch to support the bus drivers coincides with protests at Queens Road depot this week, where Unite members and Trade Union Council Manchester members gathered to express solidarity with the drivers.
One former Go North West driver at the protest told The Meteor: “I have known Colin [Hayden] for eight years. He has been treated unfairly, he has been bullied, he has stood his ground these last eight months fighting for this contract not to go through. I really hope he gets his job back. He does not deserve that.”
Go North West, which came into operation in June last year when it purchased Queens Road depot from First Manchester, says it made the cash lump sum offer in exchange for productivity improvements at the “loss-making” depot. The company argues it needs to “modernise working practices” to bring them in line with the rest of the industry. These included paying drivers to rewind manual destination blinds on buses which it pointed out had had digital displays since the end of the last century, and allocating drivers spare shifts where they could curtail journeys mid-destination if they were late finishing a shift.
“For us it is a simple choice between continuing to sustain annual losses or improving our performance to a point where we eventually return the business back into profit,” managing director Nigel Featham Featham said. The company’s financial statement shows that its losses in the year ending 29 June 2019 amounted to £271,000.
However, Unite argues Go Ahead Group, Go North West’s parent company, is a profitable company, alleging the company expected its profit for the year ending 27 June 2020 to be between £63m and £75m.
Unite say Go North West is only operating at a loss because Go Ahead Group has saddled the company with debt. Go North West’s financial statement shows it owed creditors £15.8 million in 2019, £14.4m of which had been “owed to Group undertakings”. A “group undertakings” item on an account includes all amounts owed by group undertakings (i.e. parent, subsidiary or fellow subsidiary undertakings) such as loans, current accounts and dividends receivable. Unite executive officer, Sharon Graham said:
“Despite continuing to make millions in profits, Go Ahead Group is trying to use Covid-19 to ‘fire and rehire’ its drivers and make savage cuts to pay, terms and conditions in Manchester.
“The company has targeted, bullied and victimised our union rep to try to bulldoze through its plans. This is the tip of the iceberg. If Go Ahead gets away with this in Manchester they will try and roll-out ‘fire and rehire’ elsewhere. Unite will not allow bad employers to use Covid-19 to attack their workforce. “Go North West’s managing director Nigel Featham has put the company on course for an unnecessary conflict. His actions could lead to lasting damage to the reputation of Go Ahead both throughout this country and overseas. Our message to the company is fair and simple – drop the disciplinary action against our union representative, drop your ‘fire and rehire’ threat, and get around the negotiating table.”
By Alex King and Nicholas Prescott
Feature image and in article images: Nicholas Prescott