The GMB union called off strikes of British Gas engineers planned for 12-15 February, after British Gas agreed to further negotiations over the terms of a new contract the company plans to introduce.
GMB activists report that British Gas said it would “suspend” its “fire and rehire” threat, according to which any worker who has not signed up to the new contracts by 31 March faces dismissal. The exact meaning of this “suspension” is unclear. In practical terms it may simply mean that, if talks are still ongoing on 31 March, the deadline will be extended to allow them to continue. It clearly does not represent a decisive withdrawal of the threat by the employer.
The decision to call off the strikes came after a vote in an online members’ meeting, which produced a narrow majority in favour of suspending the action. However, the vote amongst some sections of the membership was much closer, with opinion splitting almost down the middle.
Further strikes, planned for 19-22 February and 26 February to 1 March, are currently scheduled to go ahead. That will be reviewed depending on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations.
The decision to suspend the strikes is in some sense a product of the contemporary orthodoxy of the trade union movement, which sadly grips many rank-and-file reps and activists as well as bureaucrats and officials, that the aim of strikes is to secure negotiations, and that if the employer commits to further talks, strikes should be suspended to “allow” those talks to take place.
The threat of further action on 19-22 February and 26 February to 1 March gives the union some ongoing leverage. Strikes thus far have been solid and effective, leading to a backlog of 170,000 boiler repairs and 200,000 service visits. British Gas will be mindful of that threat. GMB has had the employer on the ropes, and should not now allow their opponent to get up. Those strikes should not be suspended merely for a commitment to continue negotiations, or for only minimal concessions.
GMB’s emphasis throughout the dispute has presented it primarily as a fight against “fire and rehire”, with GMB officers in strikes rallies emphasising that the union has no problem with negotiating changes through the usual means. But the dispute must be a fight against the detrimental changes to workers’ conditions the employer wants to make, not only the means of their introduction. If British Gas does not withdraw the “fire and rehire” threat, and drop its plans to cut pay and increase hours, further strikes must take place.