#HeartUnions Week: 'You've got to be in a union'

During #HeartUnions Week, UniteLive speaks to bus driver Len Newnham, one of Unite's longest-serving members

Reading time: 7 min

It’s #HeartUnions week this week, and perhaps no one has shown more love for their union than Unite deputy branch secretary and bus driver Len Newnham (pictured above right) — he’s been a member of Unite and its predecessor union for nearly 60 years.

This week UniteLive caught up with Len, 77, who not only proudly holds his union membership card after 58 years, but he’s also still driving buses like there’s no tomorrow.

“I keep telling myself I’m not going to put another winter in, but the winter’s nearly over and here I am again!” he said.  

Besides “a few aches and pains”, Len says, he’s soldiering on in the job he loves.

“I’m up at half two every morning – even when I’m on holiday,” he says.

Len’s career in the sector began when he was 18. He started as a conductor, but within a year, his employer wanted him to train to be a bus driver.

“After six weeks in the driving school, I passed the test the first time. I’d never driven in my life before then so I was quite pleased with myself.”

Although back then, there was no choice but to join the union – his workplace was a closed-shop – Len soon wanted to get more involved.

“I’d always fancied being involved in the union because I like to help people,” he said.

While Len didn’t win an initial bid to be part of the branch committee, he tried again later and won the vote handily. Over the years, he’s served in various depots in different union roles such as vice chairman, branch secretary and now deputy branch secretary at the Queens Road depot in Manchester, where he’s worked for over three decades.

Len Newnham pictured right during a TGWU ballot, 1995

Len recalls his proudest moment representing members.

“Back then, I was in the Weaste depot. They’d just announced the closure of the depot, and I told the branch chairman, ‘We’re going to give them the biggest fight they’ve ever had’.

True to their word, Len and his members gave it their all. Len helped organise a massive demonstration, with bus workers inundating the heart of Manchester to have their voices heard.

“We had about four or five hundred bus workers march from Weaste depot to Piccadilly where the bus company’s offices were,” he said. “We also met with local MPs who pledged their support to fight the closure – we held a meeting with them in my living room.”

Thanks to Len and his colleagues’ efforts, the depot was saved from closure, and remained open for another five years.

Len told UniteLive that he’s faced many challenges over the years representing members, most of which, he said, involve day-to-day dealings with management.

“Many managers, once they get more status, will forget their roots and where they come from – they change their attitudes towards workers once they have power,” he explained. “I’ve had many battles with managers over the years and they never got the better of me. But I was never rude to them – I always treated them with respect — and they in turn treated me with respect.”

Len said respect was a vital part of being a good union rep, and the most important advice he can give to anyone starting out as a rep now is one simple word – ‘honesty’.

“Always be honest – to members, to management. Even the smallest lies will get you nowhere. People think more of you if you’re upfront with them,” Len said.

During #HeartUnions week, Len encouraged every worker to join a union.

“You’ve got to be in a union, because a union gives you strength,” he said.

Len highlighted a dispute between his employer Go North West and Unite three years ago in 2021, in one of the union’s longest running strikes in history. At the time, the workers were fighting fire and rehire contracts that would have seen them lose thousands of pounds a year.

“I was on the picket line every single day for 85 days,” Len noted. “I was signing on the lads in the freezing cold in a tent. During those 85 days, it was snowing, it was rainy, it was windy. But I never missed a day.”

The bus workers went on to win that historic strike, and Len said this would not have been possible were it not for the strength of the union and the willingness of members to stick together and fight.

“I’ve heard the excuse before that ‘I can’t afford to be in a union’ but I tell them, ‘You can’t afford not to be in a union,” Len noted. “For less than a fiver a week, you get so much value from your subs – you get strike pay, you get legal assistance, you get workplace protection. You’ve got to be in a union.”

So what’s next for Len? He tells UniteLive what keeps him going is his love for the job.

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to work on the buses – and my dream came true,” he said, adding that he was proud to be Go Ahead Group’s longest-serving bus driver in the country.

He tells of a plaque commemorating the Queen’s Road depot, which features pictures of its history, including one with him in it. He also highlighted the Greater Manchester Museum of Transport, which has a collection of buses spanning the city’s public transport history.

“They’ve got a number of buses which I’ve previously driven, and when I was recognised for 55 years of service, the museum arranged for me to take out one of the buses that I’d driven,” he proudly recalls.  

Although Len’s storied career as a bus driver can’t last forever, there’s one hat he certainly won’t ever hang up.

“Even when I do retire, I’m going to keep my union membership and go into the retired members section,” he said. “I’ve been a union member my entire adult life and I’m not about to give that up.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pics courtesy of Ronnie Barton