PASSENGERS have warned that a continuous strike shutting down all services on one of the North East’s major bus providers would be devastating for the region.

More than 1,300 workers at Go North East are due to begin a huge walkout on Saturday, October 28, amid a pay dispute.

The operator has this week tabled a new offer that it hopes will result in the strike being called off, though it does not match the Unite union’s calls for drivers here to be paid as well as those at Go North West.

The result of a ballot of Unite union members is due to be announced on Friday afternoon.
Were the strike to proceed, the latest round of industrial action would result in all Go North East services, aside from contracted school routes, being cancelled for an indefinite period.

Having already suffered during two seven-day strikes this month, bus users have pleaded for an end to the chaos.

Hannah Allenby, an IT tutor from Bowburn in County Durham, relies on Go North East buses to travel to work in Houghton-le-Spring.

The 29-year-old, who does not drive and would face a £40 return taxi fare for a journey that normally costs her just £2 on the bus, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that she felt passengers had been “forgotten”.

She has backed calls for a resolution to be found that would end the industrial dispute – saying that even a temporary arrangement to allow a reduced timetable to run, rather than a total cancellation of services, would offer some relief.

Hannah, who suffers from fibromyalgia, expressed fears that elderly and disabled people will be most heavily impacted by the indefinite strike.

She said: “People are going to be stuck inside for weeks, people will be lonely and isolated just like during the pandemic. Some of the people I teach don’t even know how to switch on a laptop – never mind do an online shop for home delivery. That is a massive change for people and there are so many things that people are having to sacrifice because of this.”

Graeme Suddick, an NHS IT worker from Consett, gets the bus into Newcastle for work but has to work from home during strike days – something which he says would have caused “major problems” for the NHS had it not been for the experience of doing so in the Covid pandemic.

The 47-year-old said he sees many passengers who have pre-paid for season passes on Go North East, who will be left “paying for a service that is not there” if the strike does proceed.

Ramping up their action earlier this month, Unite announced that drivers, engineers, maintenance workers and depot crews would take part in “all-out continuous strike action” starting on October 28, with no end date set.

Under the law, workers taking industrial action have legal protection for 12 weeks – after which they can be dismissed. As Unite members at Go North East began their first strike week on September 30, that 12-week period would end on December 22.

Alistair Ford, of the North East Public Transport Users Group, said: “We are obviously concerned by the impact these strikes are having on public transport users, and we urge Go North East and the union to engage seriously to resolve the dispute as soon as possible.

"We also, however, understand the concerns of bus drivers over the need for an improved offer. Bus driving is a skilled profession and our transport system and the safety of passengers relies on a well-paid and well-trained workforce if it is to be sustainable in the future.”

Go North East announced on Wednesday that it had offered a 10.3 per cent rise that would see drivers paid £14.15 an hour, alongside a guaranteed above-inflation pay increase next year too, which the operator says would make its drivers the best-remunerated in the region.

Unite has previously complained that the average age for a Go North East driver is just £12.83 per hour, compared to £15.53 for drivers at Go North West – a rate that the company’s new offer does not match.

The ballot of Unite’s 1,300-plus members at the bus company is due to close at noon on Friday, 12 hours before the indefinite strike is due to begin.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon, who chairs the North East Joint Transport Committee, said it was “good news” that the negotiations had reached a point where workers could be balloted.

He added: “Further strikes would cause untold damage to local communities and create havoc for people’s daily lives.”

Go North East’s business director, Ben Maxfield, said on Wednesday that passengers would face “massive and unnecessary disruption to their daily lives” if the strike does go ahead.

He added: “We are urging all our employees to support the deal so we can get back to focusing on providing the high quality, reliable, and growing bus transport network the region deserves.”

Before the company’s latest offer was tabled, Unite regional officer Mark Sanderson vowed that members would “not back down in their fight for better pay” and conditions.

He added that Go North East bosses “are the ones to blame for the disruption that will be caused by further strikes”.