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Severe transport disruption in Manchester feared as bus drivers prepare to vote on strike action in pay row

If the ballot comes back in favour of industrial action there could be walk-outs this autumn.

<p>A Stagecoach bus (Image: Shutterstock) </p>

A Stagecoach bus (Image: Shutterstock)

Severe public transport disruption across Manchester is feared as bus drivers prepare to vote on strike action in a pay dispute.

Unite is getting ready to ballot members employed by Stagecoach on potential walk-outs.

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The trade union is locked in dispute with the major operator over wages.

Stagecoach urged Unite to return to negotiations and also firmly disagreed with some of the statements which have been made by the union.

Why is the ballot happening?

The trade union says Stagecoach, which operates as Greater Manchester Bus Company South, is refusing to make a pay offer which in any way meets the aspirations of the drivers.

Extensive negotiations over pay have taken place and Unite says the inability to come to an agreement has infuriated the workforce, especially as drivers continued to be at the wheel throughout the Covid-19 pandemic getting key workers to their jobs.

Unite is also disputing Stagecoach’s view that the novel coronavirus is the reason for its pay offer, saying the company remains profitable.

The union said the latest accounts revealed that the group made a profit of £58.4 million and it has £875 million of available liquidity.

Bus drivers in Manchester, though, are currently paid £12.54 an hour.

It is not just about wages, though. Drivers also want improvements in sick pay, saying it is vital that they are able to afford to isolate when they are off work sick to protect others.

What will happen next?

The ballot is expected to open on 28 September and close on 12 October.

More than 1,000 drivers based at Stagecoach’s depots in Hyde Road, Shaston, Stockport and Ashton will be able to cast a vote.

If the ballot comes back in favour of strike action, walk-outs could begin later this autumn.

The threat of strike action comes just as one potential source of public transport upheaval in Manchester has receded, with Unite securing a better pay offer for Metrolink staff who were on the verge of walking out over pay.

What effect is this likely to have?

Strike action by Stagecoach drivers has the potential to create extension disruption to the public transport network all across Greater Manchester.

The company is the city-region’s largest bus operator, with routes going as far as Wigan, Oldham and Rochdale.

What have the parties said?

The trade union is urging the company to resolve the dispute by making an offer that would be acceptable to its members.

It also warned Manchester’s drivers were unlikely to be the only Stagecoach employees in the country balloting for industrial action in the months ahead.

Unite regional officer Dave Roberts said: “Strike action will cause huge disruption to passengers across Greater Manchester. “Bus workers were rightly hailed as heroes during successive lockdowns. However, warm words do not pay the bills and Stagecoach needs to reward its workers’ dedication with a decent pay award.

“Stagecoach still has the time to resolve this dispute by returning to the negotiating table and making a decent offer.”

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Bosses at Stagecoach should know that Unite is ready for a relentless campaign if our Manchester members vote for strike action. “Unite members all over the UK are voting for industrial action right now over Stagecoach’s ‘penny pinching’ on pay.

“Stagecoach’s board should be in no doubt that Unite is now wholly dedicated to advancing the jobs, pay and conditions of its members.”

What does Stagecoach say?

Stagecoach has robustly defended the pay offer it has made and criticised the trade union over some of its public pronouncements related to the strike ballot.

It said strike action would have a major impact on customers if drivers voted for it.

A Stagecoach Manchester spokesperson said: “We believe that our local communities who depend on buses to get to work and access public services, as well as local businesses struggling to recover from the pandemic, won’t be able to understand this threat of unnecessary disruption to their bus services.

“The focus should be on protecting both the jobs of our people and the long-term sustainability of services for the local community.

“We are committed to offering good packages for our people.

“Contrary to the misleading impression given by the union, we have made a good offer to deliver further improvements in pay and conditions in Manchester that exceeded Unite’s aspirations.

“In addition, the Unite Pay Committee went to their members with a strong recommendation to accept this offer.

“The reality is that Covid-19 has resulted in bus passenger numbers being only 70% of pre-pandemic levels.

“Passenger fares are significantly short of what is needed just to even cover the day-to-day costs of running services. As a result, services being run by all bus operators require support from the government.

“Any changes to pay and conditions have to reflect the local economic conditions, the varying costs of running services and the level of passenger journeys if the bus network is to remain sustainable.

“We very much remain open to continuing discussions with the union and would urge them to return to talks.”