As more transport workers continue to strike this autumn, rs21 interviews Sol Khan, who took part in winning strike action on the buses in Greater Manchester in early 2022. Sol is a member of Unite the Union and Branch Chairman for Unite at Oldham First Bus Depot in Oldham, Greater Manchester. His depot went on strike in January 2022 and won a 9.5% pay rise, amongst other wins. Sol spoke to us about what drove his workplace to strike, how it felt to win, and his words of wisdom for current strikers.
What was your role/job at work when your strike earlier this year started?
At that time, I was Unite the Union Branch Secretary at the bus depot. My role was to make communications to outside sources, social media, Unite the Union head office and politicians and to empower our members and represent them in the workplace.
What caused the strike?
The strike was a result of many months of failed pay talks. The offers did not come close to any of our aspirations: we were offered a very low percentage of 2.5% – and this was after 3 years of a pay freeze throughout Covid. As well as this, the employer was refusing to give rostered working patterns, meaning we were still being notified of our work days at short notice each week, and they wanted us to give up certain conditions such as our sick pay. What they were suggesting was unrealistic and painful. Many months passed with long boring meetings that got nowhere. Eventually we had no choice but to take action.
What was your role in the strike?
I was the Branch Secretary. My role was to talk to Unite officials and set up the strike, and make sure that all our members were paid throughout the strike. I remember making a database with nearly 400 members and making sure we had the right information on the drivers and their financial details so that everyone could be paid. I was the main communicator with the media and ended up giving many interviews that showed the reasons why we had ended up there. I also made sure that the strike days had facilities for food, bathroom facilities and entertainment to keep the morale at its highest all the way through. I also worked with the Branch Chairman and Unite full-time officer to negotiate on a regular basis with the directors to get the deal we wanted.
Did you end up learning any skills from being on strike, personally or collectively?
This was the first time our depot had been on strike in the last 12 years. I think it would be fair to say that I went into this completely blind. We were one of the first bus companies to strike in the UK at that time, so I felt like a bit of a test subject for a while. We didn’t know the procedures and rules that had to be adhered to. Looking back, we knew nothing.
Going forward, it has given me great depth of understanding and knowledge of striking and I have gained a massive boost in confidence. I will in the future be ready for any challenge like this. I have also noted that we were a standalone depot on strike in Jan 2022. However, after the action over the last few years, our collective of bus companies in Greater Manchester are now on very similar pay deal anniversaries, so for the next pay talks we have now set up combine bus groups so that we can all negotiate at the same time with similar aspirations and cover a very large area, making a massive impact.
How did you convince people to stay out so long? What did it take to build for that kind of action in the workplaces?
Luckily I come from an industry and from a depot which has a very strong unionised environment. Our members are always supportive and ready to strike if necessary. The sad fact was that we were at the beginning of the cost of living crisis. Everyone was feeling the pinch in their disposable incomes and finances. When the company made ridiculous claims and offers, we were offended. It showed us that we were just considered numbers by the company. The feeling of resentment was wild in our workplace, and when we went on strike, we vouched to not come back until a decent deal was made. We wanted to continue until we got what we deserved. So I would say that I work with a great group of people that are clever enough to know what is right when managers and directors try to pull the wool over their eyes. We saw conditions deteriorate over Covid. We worked throughout the lockdowns, only to lose our working patterns and conditions. There was no way we would sit down and take an insulting payrise as well.
How did you ensure that all union members in the workplace were kept informed and involved in the process of deciding actions or next steps in the dispute?
All union members were updated daily through social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp, face-to-face meetings and ballots when needed. We were a single voice speaking from and on behalf of our members. It is them who dictate courses of action and where and how far we go. Every union knows this and so should every workplace rep:
Give the true information as it happens
Give them the power to make the decisions
Give them the power to dictate the way forward.
A collective decision is never wrong and will force the right course of action throughout.
Any highlights of the strike for you?
I can remember I already had some political friends, and near the end of the strike we were lucky to have all our local Labour Party MPs and councillors come down to support us, amongst them Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party. Media followed this nationally and all of a sudden we were not just local news, but news all over the UK. Our small strike made national headlines. This was something special I won’t forget. The other highlight was the new friends we made: other unions, workplace reps, groups. The support was overwhelming and you have the utmost respect for everyone who supported you throughout your hard times.
How long were you out – and what did you win? Did it feel like a win at the time?
I think in total we were out for 2 months. Our strike was not all out. We would have random days every week. I think this won us public support. As we were all over the place with the dates, it meant that the company could not hire agency staff and no buses went out, so the strike was never broken.
Eventually we got the pay rise we wanted, which equated to 9.5%, a massive win. Unite the Union gave us unlimited attention to get here, as did all the local support we got from like -minded groups such as rs21, other unions, socialist groups and politicians. We got some of our lost service rosters back in this deal and without losing any conditions. This was a significant win. I remember being at the same time relieved we had won and proud of our members and their strength throughout. It was a great win: a win when no one else was striking, a win when payrises were non-existent, a payrise with no strings attached. It was a very proud moment.
What was it like going back to work after you’d won?
It was a proud day. We had won and got the result we wanted. The atmosphere was electric and the managers who once thought they were untouchable had seen how strength in numbers can hold anyone accountable.
How have things been since you returned to work? Have you been able to tackle other issues collectively to make your conditions at work better?
It was definitely a jump in the deep end with the strike. Companies like people novices, soft and not knowing their power. This opened my eyes and gave me the power to take on anyone. Thinking about it now, it’s scary to think how simple my thinking was. I would have been a walkover then. Since the strike and the aftermath of the strike, I’ve learned so much. The confidence, the knowledge, the friends you make, the education you get. It all makes you a completely different entity in the workplace.
Since then we have started combines where all same thinking Union delegates come together in our industry. We are now connected to similar businesses local and nationally. We have a communication and support network that is cross industry and unions. Working in the workplace is completely different now. We challenge, we question and we hold those who do injustices accountable – something that was unheard of just a year ago. This all leads to better conditions for today and the future in our workplaces.
How important is support from other unions and the public, and how can people best demonstrate that support most effectively?
The support was overwhelming. Other industries, unions and groups gave massive support, without whom the strike would never have been as successful and social. The public support was fantastic. We welcomed all support and the supporters gave us the inspiration to win.
Since then I go on the picket lines of all our local strikes. We give them support to make them stronger and to make them feel they are doing right and reach for their goals. Support is everything.
Does it feel like there’s an appetite for further action now during the cost of living crisis?
Our next pay talks are in April 2023, so not very far away. This time we are ready, able and willing and have the full support of Unite the Union, other unions, groups, friends, politicians. I can’t wait to get around the table with the company. For our members they have seen fuel, food, mortgages, rents and household bills skyrocket in recent months. We will have strong aspirations, and if the company fails to accommodate, then we are more than ready for action. We deserve to protect our livelihood and we will at all costs. The struggle is real. We all feel it and we all see us struggle with everyday financial struggles.
What would you say to workers on strike now in transport and other industries?
The only thing I would say is that we have to fight for our rights. We are living in very difficult and challenging times, and if we don’t strike, we will not get what we need to live. In the UK, inflation is sky high. Mortgage costs, shopping, rents, bills – all going up. The only thing that’s not going up is our wages. Our living standards are diminishing at an alarming pace. These are bad times we have never seen in our lives before.
We have to fight. Support your union, support other unions’ strikes. The only way you will be heard will be if we all shout together. Without a fight, the only thing that will happen is that we will go backwards and be walked over. As companies make profits and dividends for their shareholders, we cry, sweat and bleed, only to go backwards. Do not give up. Get what you deserve – what your families and loved ones deserve.