GMB members working for British Gas have voted overwhelmingly to strike against management bullying. Over 82% of workers voted for a strike, and 90% voted for action short of a strike.
The ballot result is a resounding mandate for GMB officials and stewards in British Gas to go on the offensive against bosses who have been squeezing their workforce harder and harder, including threatening to axe 25% of the non-customer facing staff. A union survey found that British Gas workers feel massively over-pressured by a management that expects them to deliver top-quality customer service at the same time as it drives through a relentless culture of target-chasing and cuts.
The GMB's national secretary for the energy sector, Gary Smith, said “employees are sick to the back teeth of the pressure they face day to day at work from senior management and the competing demands placed upon them. The company says they want safe working, yet there is constant pressure on productivity. British Gas claim to want great customer service and jobs sorted first time but there are always pressures to cut costs including when it comes to ordering parts for boilers.”
The dispute is significant because it could provide a test case for other workers wanting to take action against bullying bosses. As the impact of the recession continues to bite, more and more bosses will ratchet up cuts programmes and target-chasing in order to drive down overheads in the climate of “new austerity”. Standing up to bullying bosses is a key part of what the workers' movement must do to resist capitalist attempts to make us pay for a crisis they created.
Workers' Liberty members recently set up the 'We Are Not Slaves' website to act as an online resource bank for workers wanting to resist management bullying.
For case studies and interviews, information on legal rights and Marxist theory on workplace bullying, visit http://wearenotslaves.blogspot.com.
Gary Smith, GMB national secretary for the energy sector, spoke to Solidarity about the dispute.
Q: What are your demands in the strike?
We want an independent investigation into what’s going on — the company says that they do a survey on employee satisfaction, and we don’t agree that what it says is accurate.
There is an aggressive bullying management culture; constant pressure to do more work, encouraging engineers to constantly sell, and engineers have had their job times cut: effectively they have to work faster.
Standards have been compromised in pursuit of profit. Such is the pressure on engineers that we are worried that health and safety might be compromised. It hasn’t been yet, because of the professionalism of the workforce. But if you put enough pressure on people, they will be tempted to cut corners.
Q: How did a collective, rather than an atomised, approach to tackling management bullying develop? Was there a natural move towards tackling it collectively, or did the union give leadership on the question?
The latter. The national trade union has been talking to the company for some time, we talked to the engineers about their experiences at work, to give the company evidence of what was going on. The company imposed a new “performance management” regime last year, and they refused to negotiate that with us. So we gathered the troops and told members that if you want to do away with bullying culture, you’d better vote to strike. 62% turn out in a ballot with a very short turnaround. We balloted over three weeks, and with a workforce of over 8,000 people you’d expect that to take a month.
We think that the new “performance management” regime is part of a longer-term strategy to break and sideline the union over the coming years. They’ve talked about rolling out voluntary contracts of employment, stopped us talking to apprentices about joining the union, and they’ve been showing a more hostile attitude more generally.