Industrial  •  Unite the union

Bus strikes can lead fight against fire-and-rehire

25 March 2021

Bus workers at Go North West, an RATP subsidiary responsible for routes in Greater Manchester, began a continuous strike against a vicious fire-and-rehire offensive by the bosses on 28 February. They remain on strike over three weeks later.

Go North West plans to fire around 500 drivers and rehire them on a 10 per cent pay cut and substantially inferior terms and conditions. The drivers, who are members of Unite, returned an 82% yes vote in favour of strike action.

Beyond Manchester, bus workers have been taking strike action against attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions. Unite members at London United, Quality Line and London Sovereign joined workers at Go North West in a countrywide series of strikes at French-owned RATL bus companies.

However, the momentum of the strikes has been seriously broken in the past few weeks and, unless rank and file Unite members react swiftly and decisively, they could find their disputes isolated, sold short or defeated.

On 16 March Unite officials called off strikes at Quality Line and London Sovereign planned for the following day after an “improved pay offer” from management. Union members had overwhelmingly rejected the initial offer but the “improvement” constituted a meagre 0.25% and 0.5% increase respectively, bringing them both up to a grand 1% pay rise after a year of transporting Londoners through a pandemic.

This left not only Manchester but also workers at London United to strike alone. Unfortunately members at Quality Line took the bait (even though they remain among the lowest paid drivers in London). However, on 23 March, a day before the next round of London strikes was due to commence, Unite “suspended” action at Sovereign (again) and London United. Rank and file bus drivers must seize control of their disputes and stop the officials undemocratically calling them off in exchange for a pittance.

Nevertheless, these disputes show the urgency of strike action – and a potential route to victory via rank-and-file militancy, solidarity and organisation.

‘A convenient smokescreen’

“RATP remains hell-bent on using the pandemic as a convenient smokescreen to attack key worker terms and conditions,” said Michelle Braveboy, Unite regional officer for RATP.

An increasingly common feature of the covid landscape, across the country, is that managements are using the pandemic as an excuse to launch offensives against their workers. This has become the lived reality for hundreds of thousands of working-class people. As Tory mismanagement, cronyism and the decades-long under-funding of the NHS has led to the deaths of more than 126,000 due to coronavirus, bosses in all the major sectors look to attack workers’ jobs, pay and conditions.

Examples of this offensive include British Gas, where a plan to fire 7,000 workers and rehire them on reduced pay and conditions was met with a month-long strike and widespread media coverage of British Gas vans emblazoned with the banners of striking engineers. On 5th March British Gas engineers voted 4-to-1 to launch a fresh waves of strikes, despite union officials at GMB entering into conciliation talks with management.

Like the British Gas engineers, bus workers in Manchester are not only taking action against the practice of fire-and-rehire but against the failure to adequately protect drivers during the pandemic. Management have repeatedly failed to put in place the right safety measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus on buses, adding to the shocking list of deaths among drivers.

A report published in July last year by the Institute of Health Equality at University College London found that male bus drivers had a mortality rate 3.5 times higher than men of the same age in different jobs. They contributed to the increased mortality of ethnic minorities in the UK.

Despite campaigning from unions, it took weeks after the start of the first lockdown for the Department of Transport to mandate basic health and safety measures, such as stopping front-door entry for passengers (deemed to encourage fare dodging and damage profitability!) or providing face coverings to drivers (a practice they actively discouraged).

The scandalously slow and inadequate health and safety measures taken by Government and management have led to a horrifying set of statistics. Sixty-five bus workers, mostly drivers, have tragically died from complications due to coronavirus. They include Ranjith Chandrapala, a driver on the 92 bus in Ealing, London. He was 65 when he died last May. He was not given any personal protective equipment (PPE).

The bosses of privately-owned bus companies are attacking the jobs, pay and conditions of workers at a time when drivers are at increased risk of contracting coronavirus. RATL and its UK management are in the vanguard of this offensive, and it is paramount for workers in the sector –and beyond –that a rank and file movement can push Unite in the direction of further action and ultimate success.

Privatisation and workers’ power

RATP and its UK managements are using the pandemic as excuse to unscrupulously attack workers; but this is just the latest episode in a decades-long struggle which has seen the destruction of jobs, pay and conditions in the transport sector.

Go North West was founded as Go-Ahead Northern Limited in 1987 as part of the then Conservative government’s privatisation of transport. The company has since become a key player in the international transport market with an annual revenue of £3.9 billion last year; CEO David Brown received £1.3 million in pay, bonuses and dividends last year, up from £800,000 in 2017.

Pay-packets of transport CEOs have grown, as transport workers have seen their wages eroded year-on-year. It now seems almost unimaginable that London bus drivers were  paid more than Tube drivers prior to privatisation. After a concerted rank and file effort that managed to push the RMT leadership into frequent confrontations with Transport for London (TfL), Tube drivers have successfully battled similar attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions and even won substantial pay increases.

TfL might well be a unique example, especially given the semi-public, private-franchise model it adopted during Red Ken Livingstone’s mayorship. But the fact that workers at privately-owned bus companies are facing an attack unlike anything seen at TfL for a decade, should prove that privatisation has failed the transport system with disastrous effects for both workers and users. Reversing the Thatcherite privatisation of transport is therefore central to guaranteeing workers’ rights in the sector.

The organised militancy of the RMT rank and file provides an example for bus workers in Unite, who have refused an offer once and could build the workplace and popular support to do it again. That Unite officials called off the strikes in London is nothing short of betrayal, and only a rank and file opposition can overcome the bureaucracy and its conciliatory approach to management.

Organising for victory

Bus workers in Manchester, who began a continuous strike with the knowledge that they would forgo their wages, should be commended for their bravery. The importance of their struggle against fire-and-rehire does not only concern their own livelihoods but has wide-ranging implications for the practice of fire-and-rehire in other companies and sectors.

That bus workers elsewhere were taking strike action simultaneous to workers in Manchester points to a possible future of sector-wide, coordinated industrial action. In the immediate future, however, it points to the need to the grow the Manchester strike, to refuse any offers from management intended to divide the strike, and to build rank and file organisation in order to push the Unite bureaucracy into confrontation with management at London United, Quality Line and London Sovereign – or replace them with class fighters who will.

The role of trade union bureaucracy is to negotiate and so it should come as little surprise that Unite officials called off planned strikes in London and the South East. The initial refusal of that offer by Unite members exemplifies the contradiction between this conciliatory approach of the bureaucracy and the militancy of the rank and file, who have no alternative but to fight. The revolutionary left must utilise this contradiction to develop working class power.

Solidarity committees are the key way build upon this refusal. They should form the nexus around which financial support, awareness-raising and solidarity action are organised. Such committees should include delegates from all bus depots and other workplaces, as well as from local tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, community campaigns and student groups.

Solidarity committees have played a long and fruitful role in the history of working class struggle. Remember the 1983-84 Miners’ Strike, when solidarity committees kept miners and their families fed, or the 1926 General Strike, when between 1.5 and 1.75 million striking workers joined together in solidarity with the miners. This tradition can be revived, as the mutual aid groups and food banks in the pandemic have confirmed.

But the role of solidarity committees should not limited to gathering tins of beans from generous sympathisers. Instead, the solidarity committee spreads the struggle of a particular section of workers to new workplaces, platforms and terrains. By linking up with rank and file bus drivers, they can encourage critical discussions of the way forward and the formation of rank and file opposition groups among the 80,000 Unite bus worker membership.

With this in mind, workers should demand:

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