Four hundred and eighty-five Manchester bus drivers may take part in imminent industrial action against Go North West, as talks over pay and working conditions between the bus operator and the trade union representing drivers broke down last week.
In a bitter dispute over pay and working conditions for drivers based at the Queen Road depot in Manchester, Unite said it would ballot drivers on industrial action after Go North West announced last week that it was no longer prepared to negotiate.
A company spokesperson said: “Talks with Unite now having concluded without a resolution being reached, Go North West is now consulting each of its 485 drivers on a one-to-one basis with a view to them voluntarily accepting the new terms.”
In a statement, Unite allege that Go North West would seek to terminate existing contracts and offer fresh terms, known as a section 188 notice. Branding the move “fire and rehire” tactics, the union also accused Go North West of using the coronavirus crisis as cover to force through changes.
A growing number of British employers are making employees redundant before re-employing them on less-favourable terms and conditions in what is often called “fire and rehire” practices. British Gas engineers have been on strike in recent weeks in response to such practices by bosses, and universities have been forced into U-turning by rescinding their threat to fire & rehire members of staff.
Unite also says Go North West proposes tearing up the existing sick pay agreement for drivers, a move the union has said will result in workers being forced to attend work when they are sick or should be self-isolating. A Unite spokesperson said:
“Unite is demanding that Go North West immediately suspend the threat of firing and rehiring workers who have worked throughout the pandemic and return to the negotiating table.”
Go North West have been engaged in discussions with Unite since March last year to agree a way to stem £2 million in annual losses being incurred at Queen Road depot. The company have previously stated that the losses are due to “out-dated working practices and customs” which “most of the bus industry moved on from years ago.”
In August, Go North West offered drivers a one-off payment of £5,000 in return for altering the terms and conditions of their employment.
Unite dubbed this a ‘fire and rehire’ policy, saying the changes would have reduced members’ wages by around £2,000 a year, meaning that they would be worse off within three years. Unite also argued that Go North West was only operating at a loss because Go Ahead Group, its parent company, had saddled it with debt. The drivers did not accept the offer.
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Go North West suspended a Unite representative, in August 2020, and issued a Section 188 notice. Due to this move by their employer the drivers balloted on taking industrial action, with 94% voting in favour.
In September, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey wrote to the Go Ahead Group CEO David Brown warning him “industrial action” was likely unless its subsidiary reinstated the union rep, rescinded the Section 188 notice and entered negotiations. Go North West and Unite entered negotiations on 24 September.
After three months of “challenging” talks, Unite told The Meteor it made a “final offer” to Go North West on 21 December. This consisted of cost reductions in the region of £1 million and a pay freeze worth around £200,000 for one financial year. The company deemed these savings insufficient, Unite alleges.
On 12 January, having lost confidence in the managing director of Go North West, Unite wrote to Go Ahead Group, Go North West’s parent company, to request it support talks.
Go North West then officially withdrew from talks on 16 January, and began one-to-one consultations with individual drivers. Unite alleges that drivers are being forced illegally to attend these consultations without representation and is launching a legal challenge.Unite’s regional secretary for the North West, Ritchie James, said:
“Go North West are guilty of using the pandemic as cover for forcing through a brutal fire and rehire policy which will result in drivers being poorer and unable to take time off when they are sick.
“Unite accepts that a turnaround plan is needed for the Queen Road depot and has been fully prepared to enter into negotiations, but we will not accept our members facing intimidation and bullying tactics.
“The affected drivers are key workers who have kept Manchester moving throughout the pandemic, risking their health and that of their families; for that sacrifice to be treated in this way is simply disgraceful.
“If Go North West does not end the threat of fire and rehire, Unite will be utilising all available options to defend our members’ pay, conditions and job security.”
Go North West said in response to the current situation:
“Our plan to return the business to breakeven was clear from the outset. We are clear that no jobs would be lost, the minimum number of contracted hours per week would remain unaffected and driver pay would be increased.
“We also proposed a distributable pool to provide each of our 485 drivers with a £5,000 one-off payment against the future savings the improvements would deliver, payable as soon as the new plans came into force.
“The company has continued to make concessions on the original offer. However, over the course of 38 meetings with the trade union throughout a nine-month period, local Unite representatives remain steadfast they will not accept the offer.”
Pascale Robinson of Better Buses Greater Manchester, a group campaigning to bring the city-region’s buses back into public control, said: “News came out today that publicly controlled buses in London are being retrofitted fast, so that they’re zero-emission and emit less nitrogen oxide, providing green jobs in the process.
“Meanwhile in Greater Manchester, where bus companies are in control, Go Ahead are trying to fire and rehire less staff on significantly lower pay and conditions.
“This would be shocking any day but after the sacrifices and risks that drivers have taken over the past year, it’s a scandal.
“Go Ahead doesn’t care about our communities. We must fight fire and rehire, and support drivers to get the respect they deserve. Andy Burnham should offer his support, intervene in Go Ahead’s shocking plan, and pledge to increase drivers pay and conditions as part of a plan to bring buses into public control.”
If Go North West do not return to negotiations Unite require a simple majority of ballots returned from the bus drivers for industrial action to occur.
By Alex King
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Feature image: Nicholas Prescott