Demand industrial action to reinstate workers and their contracts – nationalise under workers’ control!
by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser
· Within 3 short months of being appointed as the new chief executive of Centrica last April, Chris O’Shea launched the missile of fire and rehire at the dedicated, loyal British Gas workforce.
Since July 2020, engineers and office staff had a rocket launcher put to their heads to sign up to new, drastically worsened contracts or be fired. Despite repeated mass rejection of these attacks on their terms and conditions by workers in union ballots, Christmas Eve was set as the deadline to sign or face the sack—with a £2,000 bung thrown in, cynically timed to bribe workers into surrendering.
To their eternal credit the overwhelming majority of the GMB’s 7,000 members defied this corporate thuggery coated in bribery and refused to sign.
They rejected the new contracts which involve 15 per cent pay cuts; 156 hours a year extra, unpaid work; longer working days; shorter holidays; less time with their families; less time to do the jobs; a vicious “three strikes and you’re out” jobs target regime. In other words, more for less, a race to the bottom.
In the face of this defiance and a whopping ballot for strike action, a new deadline of 25 March was set. Meantime, workers staged a series of strike actions which escalated to four days a week.
Engineers—and some office staff who went on strike in solidarity with them, even though their own contracts have already been slashed—showed great courage and determination.
Women office workers had nothing to gain from striking in support of the engineers, because their new contracts will be imposed on the 1st of April anyway, plus they lost an entire 3-months’ bonus payment if they even went on strike for one single day. They showed that precious working-class principle: solidarity.
Facing the sack for not signing
Despite the biggest industrial action in the gas industry since the 1970s, the boardroom thugs have forged ahead.
On Monday 29 March they issued notice to those who had refused to sign the new contract that unless they did so by 14 April (this time with no £2-4,000 bung) they would be dismissed; thrown out of their job regardless of how many years’ service behind them.
At time of writing, it appears that at least 1,000 of the 5,000 engineers defied all the odds and still refused to sign the worsened contract. That, in itself, is a remarkable stance by one in five of the engineers, considering the thuggish pressure on them from the employers, and the lacklustre leadership from their own union, GMB.
As several engineers have explained to me over the weeks, the GMB rightly called on members not to sign in all the months up until talks were held with British Gas through ACAS about 4 weeks ago.
Since then, the union leadership have put all the onus on individuals, by not advising them to reject the contract, but saying that it is up to each worker whether he/she signs or not. That is an abdication of leadership, which weakens the strength of the struggle.
Build strikes against this lockout
Last week the GMB executive rightly declared this as a lockout dispute with British Gas. Because that’s what it is; they’re locking out skilled workers at a time when they are drastically needed not only to catch up with the massive backlogs of repairs and safety inspections, but when also going forward they could be central to a Just Transition to the production of clean, green energy.
But if declaration by the GMB leadership of a lockout dispute is to have any real meaning it should include serious preparations through mass meetings—online or physical, with social distancing—of members to take industrial action right across British Gas as a whole—demanding reinstatement of these workers who face the sack, and reinstatement of their contracts for all British Gas workers.
Even at this eleventh hour, if the union leadership actively fought for action it could rescue the situation. The very fact that office worker members of GMB took strike action despite the circumstances indicates the potential.
Even an initial one-day strike of the entire British Gas workforce could begin to rebuild the momentum. The alternative is to surrender to the corporate thuggery of Chris O’Shea and his boardroom boot-boys.
Two million hours slashed: crushing workload on remaining workers
One of O’Shea’s excuses for changing the contracts was his claim that the industry needs 1,000,000 extra hours worked a year to be viable. Of course, the reality is that his real aim is to cheapen the wages bill, to turbocharge profits for this privatised giant.
But as Patrick, one of the gas engineers told me after receiving his ultimatum to sign or be sacked on 14 April:
“O’Shea talked about needing 1,000,000 extra hours worked a year, but in sacking 1,000 of us he’s just got rid of 2,000,000 hours a year. So that excuse is blown out the water.”
This jobs slaughter will also bring horrendous extra workload to those who remain, including those who were bullied into signing new contracts with their savagely reduced times for doing jobs, with the Damoclean sword of the sack hanging over their heads if they fail to meet jobs targets on three occasions.
This is an added argument that the GMB leadership should vigorously use in membership meetings to advocate united industrial action across the whole of British Gas—approaching UNISON and UNITE to do likewise.
Expand the workforce for a transition to green energy
Potentially the need for the skills of the British Gas workforce is phenomenal. Any serious plans for economic recovery—and in particular for a just transition to clean, green energy—would require not just the current workforce but more engineers, and the training of apprentices, to tackle the replacement of every boiler in every house as gas is replaced by clean energy.
This whole scandalous saga highlights the need to ban fire and rehire—which of course is legalised by the anti-union legislation ushered in by the Tories and retained by New Labour throughout 13 years of Labour governments.
But it also highlights that the time is rotten ripe for the renationalisation of the gas industry, under democratic workers’ control.
Gas, electricity, oil and the whole panoply of renewable energy sources urgently need to be taken into public ownership to tackle the crisis of global warming, of fuel poverty, and the decimation of jobs throughout the sector.
Our challenge to the politicians: whose side are you on?
The SSP would throw down the gauntlet to all those politicians hunting after our vote in the May elections: whose side are you on?
Are you prepared to stand by idly and watch the British Gas boardroom fire workers simply because they can, and want to slash wages and conditions?
Are you prepared to publicly support the call for united industrial action to save these workers’ jobs and their terms and conditions?
Are you ready to join us in demanding renationalisation of the gas industry, but under democratic control?
Are you going to prove you are serious in your rhetoric about a Green New Deal to the extent that you demand these measures to implement it?
Whose side are you on—in action as well as words—in the battle between the corporate thugs and the workers they have treated with such outrageous inhumanity for profit?
The SSP stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all British Gas workers and will assist any industrial action to halt this butchery, even at eleventh hour.
The Scottish Socialist Party are ready to unite with all and sundry in a serious campaign for the public ownership of gas and the entire energy sector, as part of a Socialist Recovery Plan.
A plan where people’s lives, jobs, wages, terms and conditions—and the environment we breathe—are put well ahead of the profiteering of a few overpaid gangsters who currently rule the roost.
Shame on O’Shea and his boardroom thugs!
Fire the board!
Build industrial action across the whole of British Gas to stop these sackings and reinstate contracts.
Nationalise under workers’ control—people, not profit!