Heart Unions week: 'We took on the company - and won'
Unite drives though divide and rule to win nationwide at Stagecoach
Continuing our celebration of trade unions during Heart Unions week – today we look at the captivating story of how Unite took on bus giant Stagecoach and won, with a new strategy that turned a pay freeze into pay deals of up to 10.5 per cent for more than 2,000 workers – a true credit to the power of collectivism.
‘Unite took on the company – and won’
In the old days if Stagecoach drivers at a local depot took strike action, the bus giant would put the word out for scabs from outside the area to earn as much overtime as they could get by covering the routes. Stagecoach is divided into 18 different operational companies, each in charge of a handful of the 110 depots the company has scattered around the UK. There is no national bargaining – nor even depots within the same operational company, which can have significantly different pay rates. For years Stagecoach bosses have taken advantage of the company’s fragmented structure to keep pay and conditions to a minimum.
Crumpled in the dust
But a new strategy, spearheaded by Unite’s Stagecoach shop stewards and national officer Bobby Morton, has driven through the company’s divide and rule tactics, leaving them crumpled in the dust. The strategy, implemented during Sharon Graham’s first 100 days as Unite general secretary, has implications for organising to win at national companies across the economy. It is an example of Sharon Graham’s reconfiguration of the union to increase industrial power and propel positive change at the workplace.
Sharon Graham said: “Unite does exactly what it says on the trade union tin: fight to defend our members’ jobs, pay and conditions. The inflation busting pay rises at Stagecoach shows this approach is paying dividends for Unite members.”
So how did Stagecoach go from telling staff at all its operational companies that they would have to shoulder a pay freeze at the beginning of this year, to implementing pay deals that include rises of 7.5 per cent, 6.5 per cent and even 10.5 per cent? The answer is simple – Unite.
“The stewards were keen to come up with a national strategy for Stagecoach,” said Unite national officer, Bobby Morton. “However, you have to be very careful because we don’t have national bargaining and if we held a national ballot, the union would end up in court, lose the case and could be on the hook for a couple of million pounds,” he explained.
“But the fact is that you can’t beat big groups like Stagecoach on individual ballots. We decided that the shop stewards from each operational company would put the same pay claim in at the same time and when they were rejected, which they all were, everyone would ballot for industrial action at the same time.” It was clear that Stagecoach as a whole could well afford to give its drivers a decent pay rise. Notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic, its latest accounts reveal that the group made a profit of £58.4m in 2020 and that it has £875m of available liquidity.
Offers started to be tabled
“Low and behold, these operational companies who had no money to spend on wage increases started tabling offers. First it was 1 per cent, then 1.5 per cent plus a one off bonus of £400 or £450. We repeatedly knocked these back until we got to a stage where everyone had received a final offer from the company. Then everyone balloted for industrial action and waited,” reported Morton.
Once the successful strike ballots were returned, the next stage of the plan was for each bargaining unit to sit on their hands. Following the return of a ballot result, the law states that strike action must be taken within a six-month period. To maximise leverage, strikes at every operational company were to be announced for the same period in November. Stagecoach was looking at a perfectly legal national strike in all but name and it couldn’t do a thing about it.
Morton continued, “Before say, if Stagecoach Manchester went on strike, it wouldn’t bother Stagecoach because they would ask people to volunteer to drive in Manchester and get all sorts of overtime. They would go down and our people would be out at the gate until we’d negotiated a return to work.
“But if you’ve got the whole of the workforce out on strike, they don’t have enough people to cover all of the dispute. Everywhere they turned we outflanked them, and they don’t have an answer to it.” More than 2,500 Stagecoach drivers across the Scotland, Manchester, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Wales, Kent and Sussex have benefited from significant pay rises. Bus driver Peter Stewart, who is secretary for Unite’s national Stagecoach shop stewards committee, was one of those who has been pivotal in coordinating action across Stagecoach’s operational companies.
Talk to members and reps
For Stewart, the key to success is regular contact and good communication channels between the membership and reps. “Each committee member was feeding information back to the membership, so we’ve been sending a really clear message that this is a widespread fight not a local fight and that we all have to be singing from the same song sheet. That’s really important – you have to let the members on the floor know they are not alone,” he said. “I can honestly say it worked – we took on the company and we won. It’s about getting together and acting collectively, and you can see that this strategy will work at groups that won’t bargain nationally and are divided into different companies.”
Stay tuned to UNITElive for the rest of Heart Unions week for more on Unite’s wins for its members.
By Ryan Fletcher