British Gas engineers continued their strikes against their bosses’ “fire and rehire” threat from 5-8 February. Their union, GMB, has announced further strikes on 12-15, 19-22 February, and 26 February to 1 March.
There have been 17 strike days so far, leading to a backlog of over 170,000 boiler repairs and more than 200,000 delayed service visits. The strikes have remained solid throughout, with well-supported pickets and demonstrations taking place on a safely-distanced basis throughout the country.
2 February saw British Gas CEO Chris O’Shea called to Parliament, along with GMB National Officer Justin Bowden, to discuss the dispute in front of a Select Committee convened under the auspices of the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. At that Committee, O’Shea announced that a clause due for inclusion in the new contracts which would have allowed the company to unilaterally change terms and conditions with 28 days notice has now been dropped. This shows the company clearly feels under pressure, and could be forced into further concessions if the strike continues and escalates.
British Gas’s current position is that all workers must sign the new contracts by the end of March. As many engineers are paid two weeks in lieu and two weeks in advance, British Gas has begun deducting pay for strike days that have yet to take place — a clearly unlawful act, but one which workers say has backfired on management by galvanising support for the action and making workers more likely to participate in the strikes. A public strike fund set up to support the dispute now stands at £40,000, with British Gas reps speaking at trade union and Labour Party meetings to build support.
The new contracts British Gas wants to impose would lead to an overall 15% reduction in the basic rate of pay, as well as:
• A levelling down of holiday entitlement, representing a loss of up to a week’s holiday for many workers
• A move to an across-the-board 40-hour week, an increase in working hours for many workers
• A new bonus scheme that could see workers deducted pay if they are less active during certain periods of their shift
• A reduction in sick pay, to 13 weeks full pay followed by 39 weeks half pay (currently 24 weeks full pay, 24 weeks half pay)
• A three-year pay freeze for all workers except smart-meter installers
• Rostering changes representing up to an additional 156 working hours per year for some workers
• An increase in compulsory weekend working.
The Unite union recently settled a “fire and rehire” dispute involving British Airways cargo workers. Strikes by those workers succeeded in forcing BA to drop the “fire and rehire” threat, but several changes to workers’ terms and conditions will still take place.
The lesson here is twofold. Resistance to “fire and rehire” threats can force concessions from employers. But there needs to be a clear focus on the substantive content of the changes employers are seeking, not merely the method by which they are imposing them, and ongoing mobilisation to ensure conditions are protected.
If British Gas workers succeed in forcing the withdrawal of the “fire and rehire” threat, that will undoubtedly give pause to employers attempting to use the tactic. But if their strikes, solidly supported so far and showing little sign of petering out, are able to force climb-downs on the content of the contract, then a significant counter-blow will have been struck against a burgeoning employers’ offensive, in which bosses seek to use the economic crisis as a pretext to level down workers’ conditions.