Wrightbus is one of the last remaining bus manufacturers in the UK and produced the Routemaster, also known as the ‘Boris bus’ (when Boris Johnson was mayor of London), for the London Transport Authority.
The company, which is located near Ballymena town, in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, was enjoying huge levels of growth in recent years. It was boosted not just by the contract to supply the Routemaster but the additional fleet demands associated with legislation which mandated buses to be disability accessible.
With the passing of Boris Johnson from power as mayor in London and the passing of the peak of new bus demand, the company’s finances tightened. The situation made much more difficult by the amount of profits being taken out of the accounts by owners, the Wright family.
Chief Executive, Jeff Wright, doubles as a pastor in the Green Pastures church located next to the main Wrightbus site (he is said to have a throne in the church). Financial reports circulated in the aftermath of the company’s collapse confirm that more than £16 million has been transferred to Green Pastures over recent years, most recently as part of a building project.
While the finances were squeezed by these factors, the company invested in bringing forward new hydrogen-powered bus technology. It was recently awarded an initial contract to supply local public transport provider, Translink, with six experimental hydrogen buses.
With the consequent demand for working-capital, the company suffered a severe cash flow crisis leaving it unable to pay workers their wages at the end of September. Desperate attempts to find alternative buyers came to nought as the family – who own the land on which the factory is built under a different company, which is not in administration – sought to obtain too high a price for its sale or lease from potential buyers.
The result was experienced by workers on the morning of 25 September when they were informed that as the company had entered administration they were to be made redundant. The workforce decided to leave and hold a meeting outside the factory after Unite officials were barred from entry (no doubt fearing a repeat of the Harland & Wolff occupation in Belfast).
The reaction among workers as they milled on the carpark was anger and disgust. This came to a head as the founder of the company William Wright came to explain that the closure was caused by the bank. He was directly challenged by workers who told him that he no longer owned them.
Green Pastures church scandal
On the following Sunday, approximately one hundred workers organised a spontaneous but silent protest outside the Green Pastures church. They left their work clothing on the fence surrounding the building.
The workers’ union, Unite, has organised a mass rally in the Ballymena United football grounds for Wednesday afternoon, with a march and rally for the following Friday. The union has raised the demand for the workplace to be nationalised and provided investment as a means to deliver renewable powered buses. As yet, no political parties have backed that call.
They have also demanded that the Wright family hand the land back to the local community and remove obstacles to potential buyers coming in to reopen the site and allow a return to work. The focus of these rallies and marches are sure to keep the pressure on. Just as is the announcement that after ten weeks of a workers’ occupation of Harland & Wolff, a buyer was found who is promising to re-employ the workforce and invest to expand production on site.