Bus workers are being balloted to continue a “catastrophic” strike that has brought services across the region to a standstill, amid calls for an independent arbitrator to be brought in to end the bitter industrial row.

Staff at Go North East are about to enter their fifth continuous week of strike action, and seventh overall in the last two months, with talks between the bus operator and the Unite union having failed to produce agreement over a new pay deal. The union has now opened a fresh ballot of its 1,300-plus members at the bus company, as the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed was in the offing earlier this week, which could see the indefinite strike extended well into the new year.

An estimated 175,000 journeys would usually be made every day on Go North East services, the vast majority of which have been shut down during the walkout by drivers, engineers, and other staff. At a Gateshead Council meeting on Thursday, there were calls for the warring parties to be pressured to enter arbitration – in which a third party would consider the arguments and issue a legally binding decision on the dispute.

Coun Ron Beadle, leader of Gateshead’s Lib Dem opposition, told colleagues that Unite and Go North East should have been able to negotiate a deal, but that their relationship “has completely broken down” and led to a continuous strike which had become a “complete disaster” for the region. Urging the North East’s political leadership to challenge the both sides to agree to binding arbitration, Coun Beadle said: “What it creates is an incentive for both sides to say ‘yes’ – whichever of them says ‘no’ will be the one that the public will blame, at a time when the public is blaming both sides.”

He added: “If either of these sides won’t submit to arbitration then it is clear that they are not acting in good faith and we should be challenging them, as the elected representatives of this borough, to do better because they are letting people down.”

Labour council leader Martin Gannon agreed that the strikes had been “catastrophic” for the region and that the prospect of the strike continuing for months to come was “inconceivable”, with major concerns about entire communities being cut off from public transport. Coun Gannon, who has been a vocal critic of Go North East and has threatened the company with financial penalties, urged both sides “in the strongest possible terms” to resolve the dispute but said he could not force them into arbitration.

Unite members overwhelmingly rejected a 10.3% pay rise offer from the company, which Go North East has insisted is a “fair deal” that would make its drivers the best-paid in the region. The union had been calling for a pay 13% increase, 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.

Were the second strike ballot to pass, it would allow the indefinite walkout to continue far beyond Christmas. Under the law, workers taking industrial action have legal protection for 12 weeks from when it started. As Unite members at Go North East began their first strike week on September 30, that 12-week period allowed under the current ballot would end on December 22.

Suzanne Reid, Regional Coordinating Officer for Unite the Union
Suzanne Reid, Regional Coordinating Officer for Unite the Union

Ahead of a next round of negotiations on Monday, Go North East business director Ben Maxfield said: “The team at Go North East are working tirelessly to bring this dispute to an end and exploring all avenues which might bring a resolution. Our next meeting with Unite will take place this Monday, 27 November. We will approach the discussion positively with the aim of finding a fair and affordable resolution.”

Unite confirmed its latest ballot will run until Thursday, December 7. Suzanne Reid, the union’s regional coordinating officer, added: “We remain ready to negotiate with Go North East but all we’ve had so far from them is talk and no new offer on the table. We are now undertaking a fresh ballot of our members so they don’t fall victim to any dirty tricks from Go North East’s management.

"We don’t want this dispute to linger on and want this resolved as soon as can be for both our members and the local communities. As soon as a realistic, improved offer is forthcoming we will take it to our members.”

Mr Maxfield called the decision to launch a second ballot “completely unnecessary” and claimed it “puts into question how serious Unite are about a settlement”.