Go North West dispute ‘threatens depot’s future’

Go North West strike action to start on 28 February

Go North West (GNW) says there is a risk of its Queens Road depot in Manchester closing with the loss of 600 jobs if no solution can be found to a dispute with union Unite that is set to involve indefinite strike action by some drivers from 28 February.

At the centre of the dispute are productivity improvements through a plan called Reset 2020. GNW says they are imperative if Queens Road is to survive. The Cheetham Hill depot is currently returning recurring annual losses of £1.8m because of what GNW calls “outdated working practices.”

GNW’s Reset 2020 proposals would return the depot to break-even status within three years. It says that the package seeks to bring working practices at Queens Road into line with those that are “already widespread across the industry.”

Go North West strike action centres on ‘fire and rehire’ proposal

Unite says it has been negotiating with GNW about the savings that are required at Queens Road, but it accuses of GNW of causing those talks to collapse in January. Differences centre on what Unite calls a “fire and rehire” proposal. If adopted, that would result in drivers being subject to “vastly inferior” contracts, it says.

GNW acknowledges that it notified Unite on 14 August 2020 under Section 188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 that unless agreement could be reached on new working arrangements, it would need to “implement change by giving drivers notice and re-engaging them on new terms.”

The operator says such action was commenced to kick-start discussions with Unite after the union withdrew from talks in July 2020. It returned to the table in September 2020. Unite subsequently made alternative proposals to GNW, but the operator says that they fell “well short” of delivering the £1.8m annual savings that are required.

GNW refutes Unite claims that drivers will be worse off

Unite claims that under Reset 2020, drivers will be £2,500 per year worse off through having to work longer, that driver headcount will reduce by 10% and that drivers will be affected by unfavourable changes to GNW’s sick policy.

In response to those claims, GNW says that there will be no changes to drivers’ wages and that there will be no redundancies. It adds that GNW drivers “are already among the best paid in the region” and that the deal includes guaranteed “inflation-proof” pay increases in April 2021 and April 2022.

Drivers would also each receive an upfront payment of £5,000 under the revised agreement. That is intended to offset the additional 10-15min per week of working time that changes to schedules that are part of the proposals would entail “over the average working lifetime of a driver.”

Go North West strike action in prospect
Go North West says that most drivers at Queens Road have voluntarily accepted the productivity package; others are ‘expected to sign’ for it

Unite says that its driver members at Go North West voted 82% in favour of strike action.

In response, GNW notes it gave drivers the opportunity to accept the original productivity package on an individual basis after a compromise was rejected by Unite.

393 of the 474 drivers at Queens Road have volunteered to accept the package, the operator says. The remainder “have been given notice of new terms and conditions and all are expected to sign,” GNW says.

Unite represents “over 400” drivers at the Cheetham Hill depot. It adds that GNW hand-delivered letters to drivers’ homes on 8 February informing them that they had eight days to accept new contracts “or be dismissed on 8 May.”

Unite describes that as a “cynical attempt” to “bully and intimidate” staff and says it is investigating whether the decision to hand-deliver letters represents a breach of restrictions related to COVID-19.

Both sides willing to return to negotiating table

GNW notes that while it will maintain as many services as it can during the action, disruption is likely. Both sides say they are willing to return to the negotiating table, but in a statement, Unite Regional Secretary Ritchie James adds that the union’s participation is dependent on GNW withdrawing the “fire and rehire” proposal.

GNW says the “outdated working practices” it refers to include drivers being:

  • Paid to wind manual destination displays, despite there not having been any fitted to buses at Queens Road for many years
  • Allocated “excess ‘spare’ shifts” that involve little driving
  • Able to curtail journeys – including asking passengers to leave the vehicle mid-journey – if they are late in finishing a shift.

Go North West was formed after Go-Ahead Group purchased Queen’s Road depot from First Bus in February 2019 for £11.2m. Operations were launched in June 2019.