This year the march in heavy rain was from Piccadilly Gardens up Cheetham Hill, a long walk driven by a determination to show solidarity with Go North West bus drivers who have been on indefinite strike since 28 February.
At 500-strong, this year’s march was larger than in the last several years and larger than the last demonstration of solidarity with the bus strikers at the Queens Road depot at the top of Cheetham Hill. There were many banners and flags from Unite – the union at the forefront of the fire and rehire struggle – and from the Fire Brigades Union, and well as political groups and left organisations from Greece and Iran. Perhaps this year’s demonstration was larger because we can sense victory. This dispute can be won.
Drivers were forced to sign new contracts without union representation and threatened with the sack if they did not comply. This is what ‘fire and rehire’ means, and it is a pandemic austerity practice being implemented by a number of companies, including Centrica for British Gas workers – also striking under GMB leadership, striking back – with the outcome watched carefully by all employers. If Go North West can get away with firing and rehiring, then Centrica will also go ahead with more disciplinary action. This has been bitterly fought, with the company installing 100,000 pounds worth of surveillance technology at the garage. Early morning attendance by other workers in solidarity, walking very slowly in front of buses – sometimes marking a few yards in one and a half hours – have been effective.
Go North West has, in the last few days, declared that it will not use fire and rehire, probably because they are also hoping to win a lucrative contract in Sweden, where the practice is against the law. It is, nevertheless, significant backtracking by the company. We need to be vigilant to enforce this significant step forward in the dispute. Even though an agreement has been made it is not officially signed off yet, but Go North West’s parent company have confirmed they won’t use fire and rehire anywhere in the world, the dismissed reps are to be reinstated, planned disciplinary procedures against striking drivers have been cancelled and the contracts they forced drivers to sign during the dispute will be ripped up and renegotiated. The workers are carefully going through the deal now and it is very likely they will probably push for changes to improve it.
Meanwhile, there are danger signs. Go North West buses are still running, some passing the demonstration today, to booing from the marchers. In the early days of the pandemic, Go North West did install transparent safety shields for drivers, but some of the scab buses brought in to break the strike, which has offered cut-price fares to lure passengers onboard, have had barely any protective barriers.
What needs to be done now, bus drivers on the rally pointed out, is to keep up the strike action, keep up the pressure, and also keep up pressure on Labour Party Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham. Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan in London are being pressed to ensure that the companies who take up new contracts cannot use ‘fire and rehire’. Unite are insisting this. Burnham’s pledge to bring buses back into public ownership is a smart move, but limited in scope. Although it means that routes and timetables will be guaranteed – against the common practice of slicing out the low-profit services – the actual bus operations will still be outsourced. So far Burnham has refused to guarantee that he will enforce no fire and rehire policies as a condition for private companies getting a contract.
We made our voices heard today, even though the Manchester Evening News ran a disgraceful article that simply spoke about ‘disruption’. In fact, cars hooted, and people waved, and this rainy day could be seen as a marker of success, a vindication for collective action and for anti-capitalist struggle.
Ian Parker is an Anti*Capitalist Resistance activist in the North West.