STRIKING bus workers will not back down from their fight with bosses until they win an improved pay deal, union bosses have vowed.

Hundreds of Unite members gathered for a mass rally on Friday morning (November 10), in a show of force outside Go North East’s riverside depot in Dunston.

Bus drivers, engineers and other staff are now entering the third week of an indefinite walkout that has brought the vast majority of the major operator’s routes to a standstill – with the dispute showing no sign of being brought to an end.

An estimated 175,000 journeys are made every day on Go North East buses across the region and there have been major concerns for communities left cut off by the ongoing hiatus. 

Union members overwhelmingly rejected a 10.3 per cent pay rise offer last month, which the company has insisted is a “fair” deal that would make its drivers the best-paid in the North East.

Unite had been calling for a 13 per cent increase for its 1,300-plus members, but has also complained that bus drivers at Go North West currently earn an average hourly wage that is more than £5,000-a-year higher than their North East counterparts.

Sharon Graham, the union’s general secretary, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service on Friday that she felt Go North East workers were treated as “second-class citizens”.

She added: “We will be here until we win. I am getting personally involved in this dispute now and it won’t be with Nigel Featham [Go North East’s managing director], it will be with the CEO of the parent company [Go Ahead Group] because I believe there has been mismanagement in this dispute.”

The union leader told the large crowd of chanting workers that it was now time to “escalate” what has already become a bitter industrial conflict by targeting company investors to put pressure on the firm.

Last Monday, the latest round of negotiations between Unite and Go North East broke down and the war of words between the two parties has continued since.

The company called Friday’s protest a “distraction from the core issue that we need to resolve”.
Unite regional officer Suzanne Reid said she felt the company was “waiting for us to cave” rather than produce a higher pay offer and that the union was “always available to talk”.

She added: “We know that in areas like Consett people can’t get to work. We feel for those communities, we do not want to disrupt their lives. But it is within the company’s gift to end this – it can be solved so, so easily.

“We will continue until this is settled. This is the largest union in the UK and we will be staying out until the dispute is settled. 

“We don’t want to be in this position, we don’t want this to go on – for our members or our communities. But the reality is that they need to pay us better.”

Go North East business director Ben Maxfield responded: “Today’s demonstration by Unite has been a distraction from the core issue that we need to resolve. We are very aware of the impact this strike is having on passengers and communities and we want a sustainable resolution as soon as possible.

“Many people would agree that a 10.3 per cent pay offer this year, on top of a 10 per cent increase last year, is a fair offer – and it makes our drivers the best paid in the North East.

“The union has cited pay inequality between drivers in the northeast and the north west.

"Manchester drivers earn different wages because they spend more time behind the wheel and have more flexible schedules under a deal agreed with Unite three years ago. We offered the same package to drivers in Newcastle – but Unite said ‘no’.”

Among the speakers at Friday’s rally was North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, who told the crowd that he would be meeting with Mr Featham that afternoon.

He said: “I don’t believe that workers in the North East should be paid £5,000 a year less for doing the same job, for the same company as people in the North West. This is affecting our passengers, it is affecting people’s ability to get to work, get to school, get to college, to go on a night out. It needs to change.”