During the pandemic, an estimated one in ten workers have had to experience their bosses attempting to pull off the ‘fire and rehire’ trick: to sack their workforce, in order to bring them back on worse terms and conditions. The success of this employers’ offensive has been mixed; while the tactic was thoroughly seen off at British Airways, where an embarrassed management was forced to back down, workers at British Gas are currently in a fierce industrial dispute in defiance at management attempts to rip their rights to pieces.
A fresh example of this is at Queens Road bus depot in north Manchester, where 485 bus drivers are balloting for strike action. While people clapped key workers like the drivers at Queens Road for keeping society connected during the pandemic, their new managers at Go North West – the regional brand for Go Ahead, which took over running operations from First Bus in June 2019 – had different ideas.
Go North West’s goal is to implement Reset 2020, a plan to shave £1.8 million from company costs. If this becomes company policy, anything resembling a normal working life for drivers goes out the window. ‘Flexible working’ will be rolled out, with a whole host of new rostering and holiday agreements introduced.
The proposed changes will extend the working days and weeks of their employees, which bus drivers cannot accept easily. Staying in one place for a great amount of time, these shift workers have a considerably reduced agency over their own lives, inside and outside of work. There is no chance that you can nip to the toilet or have a coffee break when you’re behind the wheel of a double decker bus.
Additionally, workers told Tribune that ‘our lives have been built around rosters’ as they currently stand. ‘People have waited years and years to get onto the rosters they need,’ a member pointed out, adding that many rely on a set work pattern to fulfil adult caring responsibilities and child-care provision. Tearing up these frameworks, Tribune was told, ‘gives the bosses unheard of control over us.’
Unite estimates that by forcing longer working hours for less pay, drivers will be annually out of pocket by around £2,500. Go North West claim that their offer is good by local comparison, but trade unionists reject this, claiming that their pre-existing arrangements compare closely to conditions offered by the Arriva, First, Diamond and Stagecoach bus companies that operate in the Manchester area. And at a time when more bus drivers are needed, not less, the union believes that the intensification of work will result in around 50 job losses.
Go North West unilaterally withdrew from negotiations last month and began the fire and rehire process. Despite constructive proposals from Unite about reducing losses, the company is set on ploughing ahead. It also intends to spend £2.5 million on ‘reward’ payments of £5,000 for bus drivers to accept the inferior terms and conditions, something many workers feel is tantamount to a bribe in a time of financial hardship. Unite regional officer Steve Davies describes it as an ‘odious sleight of hand’ and exemplary of a ‘bullying management style.’
In August 2020, after it was alleged by Davies that the company’s managing director Nigel Featham gave active trade unionists a ‘dressing down’ to force through the £5,000 one-off payment, the depot’s senior shop steward found himself suspended from work, prompting trade unionists and locals to carry out dawn blockades of the depot in solidarity.
Indeed, industrial strife seems to follow Featham. When he was at the helm of Warrington’s municipal bus services in 2003, TGWU bus drivers took unprecedented strike action. When he later moved to work at Arriva in the North East of England, a series of industrial actions spread across the region.
This clear pattern – of bullying, bribes and intimidation in order to ease through worse conditions – is set against the backdrop of a company failing upwards. Go Ahead was an early benefactor of Margaret Thatcher’s selling off of Britain’s National Bus Company in 1985. Since its foundation in 1987, it has grown into an international transport corporation with an annual revenue of £3.8 billion.
Its CEO, David Brown, received almost £1.3 million last year – up from £800,000 in 2017. Even Grant Shapps, the current Tory transport minister, was forced to describe Brown’s ballooning bonuses as a “reward for failure” in relation to the company’s abysmal record in administering Southern Railway during one of the worst timetabling crises the railway ever experienced.
It’s a reminder that some people have done excellently from bus deregulation and privatisation, but their experiences couldn’t be further from the reality of Britain’s bus drivers. According to a report from the Transport for Quality of Life, bus drivers’ wages were similar to average wages for all occupations before the deregulation of the service. But while average wages for all occupations rose by 25% in the decade following deregulation, bus drivers’ wages fell by 11%. Their wages began picking up from the mid-1990s, but at a similar rate to the rise for all jobs, meaning that the gap remained.
Just like local people have mobilised in the past in defence of workers, they intend to do so for bus drivers now. Organisations like Better Buses for Greater Manchester, who campaign for greater regulation in bus services for the public, stand with the bus drivers. They point out that in the light of London’s bus service creating green jobs by retrofitting their buses to be zero-emission vehicles, the actions of Go North West look like a retrograde step.
It’s a sentiment shared by Unite members across the industry, who have serious concerns that if the changes are forced through, it would be the beginning of a very bad turn for bus drivers in Manchester. ‘Imagine they get their way here,’ a worker told Tribune. ‘How is it going to impact on other bus drivers in the area? It’s going to be a race to the bottom, pure and simple.’
Across the board, the tsunami of fire and rehire attempts couldn’t show more clearly the greed of Britain’s bloated boss class and their attempts to squeeze profit from workers, families and communities. Their actions are in such stark contrast to the decency of this country’s workers, who have kept people connected at a traumatic time. The Queens Road depot will deliver its strike action vote on February 9th – but their struggle has much broader ramifications.