British Gas strikers took a stand on picket lines around the country and showed management what they think of their new contacts, reports Margery Thorogood
This week British Gas workers began another round of strike action over (British Gas) Centrica’s plans to ‘fire and rehire’ alongside making cuts to workers’ pay and terms and conditions. On Friday, strikers on picket lines around the country burned the new contracts with deteriorated pay and conditions that they’ve been told to sign or be fired.
Last June Centrica announced plans to cut around 5,000 jobs in a ‘significant restructure’ and to ‘modernise’ workers’ terms and conditions to reflect the ‘changing needs of customers’.
GMB says 89% of its members voted for strike action. Justin Bowden, GMB national secretary, said,
“a profitable British Gas provoked their loyal staff into strike action in the depths of winter by refusing to heed their overwhelming rejection of the fire and rehire pay cuts. They have now ignored a five-day demonstration by the engineers that the proposals are not acceptable. They are forcing further disruption on their customers all the way into next month because of the new strike dates. British Gas should recognise that the only way to end the disruption they provoked is to take fire and rehire pay cuts off the table. “
British Gas’ criticism of GMB in its statement that “the GMB leadership seems intent on causing disruption to customers during the coldest time of the year, amid a global health crisis and in the middle of a national lockdown” represents typical management tactics to undermine union solidarity by attempting to instil feelings of guilt in the strikers and appealing to the public conscience.
Around 12 pickets turned out today in the bitter cold at the entrance to Centrica Windsor, all masked and exercising social distancing, in groups according to the directive by Thames Valley Police. The mood was positive and particularly so when passing motorists tooted their support; at least one every 20 seconds during the hour I was there. But these strikers have a real battle on their hands and at a time when industrial organisation is challenging.
Michelle Gordon, GMB Regional Organiser, said that British Gas wanted changes and started negotiating with GMB last summer. No progress was made and negotiations broke down. The company said that workers should either comply with the proposals or be ‘fired and rehired’. Many workers are long-standing employees of British Gas and feel bitterly let down.
She said that the union has received lots of public support and press coverage in this current dispute. People have been horrified given the way British Gas – previously a public utility before privatisation - is treating its workforce. British Gas is extremely profitable - currently operating at a £901m operating profit - so there is no excuse. The fact that the CEO Chris O’Shea’s pay has doubled adds further insult to the situation facing the workers.
I talked to two strikers. One has been a loyal British Gas engineer (for this is the group primarily involved in this campaign) for most of his working life, now in his 30th year. He told me that GMB has received lots of messages of support from other unions like on Twitter. For him, the new contract would mean that “I would work an extra 156 hours for nothing and lose 5 days holiday.” In the area where he lives and where his customers are based, one change would mean engineers work an extra 3 hours per week – on top of their 37 hours – to start at their customer’s home rather than their own.
So, for him, this would mean that he would lose at least 30 minutes’ pay per day which mounts up. He was also concerned about the future. “People are leaving, or considering leaving, which means a loss of expertise and experience in an industry people depend on. They are also difficult to replace. Customers are being let down.”
Another striker - has worked for British Gas for 21 years - said that “gradually we are getting more support. It is really bad for engineers with kids and families. Cut and cut to make savings. No investment. Really bad if they get away with it. Some trade unions need to rebuild their education.” He referred to one of his customers thinking that he got paid whilst being on strike.
GMB engineers need support from the general public and from all those in the labour and trade union movement. Given the appalling trend in workers’ contracts with the ‘fire and rehire’ practice getting a hold, a wake-up call is desperately needed and particularly so when set against the context of eye watering salaries and bonuses of CEOs and the like who hold the power and exercise control.
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