Tracey Scholes, a bus driver for 34 years and first woman to drive buses here, made her final appeal at Queens Road Bus Depot on Tuesday 11 January, but it won’t end here.
A huge gathering of supporters at the depot took place at 1pm to protest against the decision by Go North West to sack Tracey because, the company say, she is ‘too short’ to drive buses that have had their rear wing mirrors repositioned. Petty it is, but the stakes are high, and charged with significance for all bus workers.
This dispute follows a successful official Unite-backed strike over pay, and the company is clearly now striking back, showing who cracks the whip in the workplace. Go North West were defeated at the end of last year after sustained pickets and demonstrations in support of the bus workers, so this sacking is a way of taking revenge, and an attempt at divide and rule.
The company claims that they have made concessions, ‘numerous proposals’ reported the Manchester Evening News, but these were all geared to punishing Tracey for refusing to back down. The company’s proposals would have involved a cut in pay, and demotion. In fact, Tracey herself made counter-proposals, to the extent of offering to do alternative work, admin or even cleaning, but without a pay reduction.
That this is a woman bus driver is symbolic of the gains that have been made in the last decades, and that the company will now target Tracey Scholes is an indication that even those symbolic gains are too much. There are now serious attempts to roll back rights of woman at work, and not only in terms of pay – pay which still lags far behind that of men in all sectors of work – but also in terms of ability to work. It is this ability that is being questioned, undermined in this action by Go North West.
There has always been an attempt to roll back women’s rights at work by claiming that there is something about their bodies, physical differences that, by ‘nature’, excludes them from certain kinds of employment. Here there is a brutal aspect of the current ‘feminisation’ of work that is very different from the positive inclusive feminisation that treats women as workers able to work, and to strike for their rights, alongside men.
Feminisation usually in its dominant profit-driven sexist sense involves making use of women’s care-giving abilities, harnessing them to the service sector – training women to smile at customers and be nice as part of the lower levels of management.
The most insidious kinds of feminisation also involve segregation of work, and the demeaning assumption that some kinds of work are less important than others. This can mean paying those engaged in manual labour less because, supposedly, that the labour is worth less, less meaningful. But it can also mean that only able-bodied ‘normal’ bodied workers are those who are worth employing.
In this case, the company have standardised their buses for a ‘normal’ bodied driver, and because Tracey Scholes is ‘too short’, she has to go. She could, the company say, drive a school bus instead, for less pay of course, and so the message is an ideological one of the kind that always accompanies immediate material interest cost-cutting.
There are thus implications to this case that go far beyond the targeting of one worker because she won’t bend to management rules; there are questions of the rights of women to work alongside men, and there are deeper background questions about what ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ at work leads to. Here it is clear that ‘disability’, not having a body of the right kind, even simply not being the right height, is grounds for exclusion from work.
Will the company succeed? It looks like it might not if the size of the demonstration outside the bus depot is anything to go by. Over twenty-five thousand have signed the petition to support Tracey. Local celebrities like Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh have spoken out, and there has been good coverage on local news, on ITV national news, and on Radio Four Women’s Hour programme.
And, Tracey’s union, Unite, have been clear about their support for her in this case. Sharon Graham, the new Unite general secretary has been forthright in her support. This is a test case, testing a number of interlinked issues at one and the same time, a case of intersectional struggle in action that mobilises the oppressed and draws connections for a broader campaign about rights at work.
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