'Pushed to the brink'

Go North East bus workers embark on all-out continuous strike action as survey reveals widespread stress and financial pressure

Reading time: 8 min

More than 1,300 Unite members working for bus company Go North East will embark on all-out continuous strike action from Saturday (October 28) in a determined fight for fair pay and conditions.

Their latest brave stand follows two weeks of strike action that ended last week (October 20) and a resounding rejection of a new pay offer in a ballot today (October 27).

The striking Unite members are angry that they’re being paid up to 20 per cent less than their counterparts in Manchester, who do the exact same jobs working for the very same company.

Their pay is so low that many members are struggling to meet even a basic standard of living, as a shocking new Unite survey of Go North East members reveals.

A strong majority – 60 per cent – of the nearly 1,000 members who responded said they had to cut back on essentials such as food and energy. Nearly a fifth reported being forced to skip meals or not being able to pay they rent or mortgage. Some even said they had to resort to food banks to feed themselves.

The immense financial pressure they’ve faced is coupled with nightmarish stress at work – which will only be exacerbated after the company previously offered a pay rise contingent on cuts to their already poor working conditions. 

The Unite survey shows the devastating extent to which Go North East workers are exhausted and at the end of their tether. Three-quarters said they work excessively long hours, with 37 per cent reporting this has had an impact on their family life, while another third said it’s affected their physical health and a further third reporting it’s knocked their mental health.

This exhaustion has meant they’re putting both themselves and passengers in danger – 60 per cent reported that over the last year, fatigue has led them to make driving errors while at work, with another 20 per cent saying they’ve had to stop driving because of excessive tiredness. A minority reported even having fallen asleep while working or falling asleep on the way home and missing their stop.

Striking GO North East bus driver Sarah* told UniteLive that bosses shortening running times – the time drivers are given to get from one stop to another – is among the main reasons drivers are under so much pressure. The knock-on effect is that shortened running times throws the whole bus network into chaos, with passengers left paying the price.  

“Everything is always running late,” she said.  “You don’t have enough time to get from one point to another. It’s got to the point where the bus in front of you is running so late that you have to pick up two lots of passengers. You’re doing twice as much work, which makes you twice as late again. All the while we’re getting abuse off passengers because we’re running late – you can’t win. Every day we’re pushed into forced unpaid overtime because you can’t just stop the bus and go home, can you?”

Sarah explained that management has shortened running times just so they can make more profit. 

“Part of the problem is they can’t recruit enough bus drivers because the pay is so low, but it also comes down to plain greed,” she said. “Management has shortened running times to squeeze as much out of you as they can so they can make more money by fitting in extra journeys. But the running times are impossible – it’s just not working.”

UniteLive also spoke to bus driver Mike*, who reported the very same problem.

“At the moment, the main route I work on – called a run — is two hours long,” he said. “Within that run, they give us 10 minutes to get from point A to point B, but in reality, it takes at least 15 minutes. You have to start by checking your bus, which takes up at least four minutes of your allotted time, so from the very beginning of the day you’re running around like a headless chicken.”

Mike and Sarah both said the constant pressure they’re under has put passengers’ safety at risk.

“I’ve got an excellent driving record – I haven’t had any incidents in over ten years – but more and more now, I feel like I’m forced to take risks that make me uncomfortable because of the time pressures we’re under. We really shouldn’t be rushing with a vehicle as big as a bus,” Mike said.

Sarah said she and her colleagues have knocked off bus mirrors and clipped the back of their buses on bollards before, all because of the time pressure.

“My biggest fear is that we’re going to have accidents, and drivers will go off sick with mental ill health – it’s just not worth it,” she said.

Mike and Sarah have had no reprieve from stress when they get home, where they’re met with bills that they’re struggling to pay.

“I’m not earning enough to make ends meet,” Sarah said. “This week I couldn’t afford to pay my council tax – I had to decide between paying council tax or making sure I had food on the table for my children. It’s got to that stage.”

Mike added, “I’m struggling to pay my rent, to pay my council tax, to pay for the upkeep of my car that enables me to get to work in the first place. I’ve maxed out three credit cards, and I can’t pay for fuel so last week I’ve had to walk five miles to get to the picket line.”

Ultimately, Mike said, “We’re not looking for a fortune – we just want them to pay us what we are worth.”

It’s a simple demand that the company can well afford. After all, Unite research found that the highest paid director at Go North East took home an eye-watering £185,000 in 2022 — this is six times the pay of the average employee. Go North East is part of the wider Go Ahead Group of companies, whose last accounts show their bus division made profits of nearly £85million.

Both Mike and Sarah emphasised the pride they take in their work serving passengers. If management came to the table with a reasonable pay and conditions offer, they’d welcome the chance to do the jobs they love.

“My heart goes out to passengers,” Sarah said. “When we can’t provide a good service, they’re missing their appointments and running late to work – all because of management greed. I would love nothing more than to give passengers the service they deserve, and to do my job in a safe way. But as things are now, there’s literally nothing we can do, and it breaks my heart.”

Commenting as members rejected the latest pay offer by 81 per cent on a turnout of 93 per cent, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “Go North East are betraying their workers and are now responsible for the disruption caused to people living in the North East.

“Their parent company is awash with cash, they pay their CEO six figure salaries and yet, as our survey shows, they pay their workforce such low wages they are forcing them to use foodbanks to feed their families.

“This stubbornness, refusing to pay a decent wage to their workers, is what’s caused this dispute and only Go North East can end it by improving their offer. Unite will be backing our members to the hilt in that fight.”

Unite regional officer Mark Sanderson added, “We have repeatedly asked Go North East for a fair pay increase and again and again dragged their feet and refused to make a decent pay offer. We have drivers pushed to the brink of tiredness, working all hours God sends and skipping meals to make ends meet – yet their employer shows nothing but callous disregard for their wellbeing.

Go North East have massively misread the strength of feeling from their workers on this issue and Unite will be backing them the whole way.”

Stay tuned on UniteLive for the latest on the Go North East bus strike.

*Names changed to protect privacy

By Hajera Blagg