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British Gas workers on strike

British Gas workers on strike. Photo: GMB Union / cropped from original

Counterfire's weekly digest rounding up the stories of working people getting organised and fighting back

The GMB union have announced that talks with British Gas have broken down and their members will resume their strike. Strikes were postponed whilst the union entered negotiation with the company, but will resume from today and last for 4 days after the company refused to take its plans to fire and rehire the engineers off the table.

This comes after 16 days of strike action by thousands of workers which has caused real disruption to services. The union claims that more than 210,000 homes are in a backlog for repairs and 250,000 planned annual service visits have been cancelled as a result of the action, though Centrica bosses deny these claims.

The GMB, which represents 90 per cent of engineers, had emphasised that unless the threat to sack members is removed permanently they will vote down a deal with the company “on principle.” 

Management have been using bullying tactics against strikers as one Scottish engineer explained;

“We’ve been getting pressured into signing contracts. Colleagues have had emails every week about it. And police moved us on from the picket line last week. All we want is for this to be over so we can get back to doing our jobs and helping customers.

"They are asking us to take on 156 extra hours a year and do our jobs in shorter time frames, that means less time for safety checks. And if we don't sign up to these unsafe targets, we’re facing the chop. We are so angry about this.”

The engineers have been getting strong support from across the unions and beyond. By resuming the strike, these workers have shown they won’t settle for any deal that will reduce their terms and conditions. This is an absolutely crucial dispute, we need full support from trade unionists and wider. Support the strikers by passing this model resolution and sending a solidarity message.

Uber drivers recognised as workers in historic victory

In what GMB describes as a ‘historic’ win, the Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are to be considered as workers and not contractors or self-employed. After a four-year legal battle, the six judges ruled unanimously in favour of the workers. This means that Uber drivers will now be entitled to basic statutory workers’ rights, including a minimum wage, holiday and sick pay, protection from discrimination and entitlement to breaks.

Former drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) first brought the case to court in 2016. Since then Uber has brought the case to appeal three times, with each appeal ruling in favour of the drivers.

While this ruling only applies directly to the drivers who brought the case, this is only the first step in a process that will have important consequences for the industry. It will now pass to an employment tribunal who will decide on how the judgement is to be applied. Leigh Day Solicitors, on behalf of GMB, are already working on bringing compensation claims forward for thousands of Uber drivers, who they say could be entitled to an average of £12,000 each in compensation. It also sets a strong precedent for similar cases to be brought by other gig economy workers, such as Deliveroo drivers.

This ruling is a testament to the power of organised workers. Without the work of the drivers and the unions, this judgement could not have happened. They must now continue this offensive against the gig economy.

Queen’s Road bus drivers on all-out strike from 28th February

Manchester’s bus drivers at the Queen’s Road bus depot in Cheetham Hill are set to start an all-out strike from 28th February. The company is pushing forward with their plans to fire and rehire all the drivers at the depot on new contracts which Unite says will reduce their sick pay and force them to work extra hours for the same pay, resulting in £2,500 lost earnings.

Go North West Managing Director, Nigel Featham is refusing to work with the union to avert the action which will see huge disruption to some of the Manchester’s busiest bus routes. Since joining the company in 2019, Featham has repeatedly sought to undermine the drivers’ pay and conditions and suspended the depot’s Unite rep, Colin Hayden on spurious grounds last year.

The drivers’ Facebook Page reported that the depot management is now spreading propaganda in an attempt to convince the drivers to back down, accusing them of ‘destroying their workplace’ with industrial action. But the ballot has widespread support, with 82% of drivers voting yes to strike action, showing they are determined to fight back and preserve their terms and conditions.

With schools currently due to reopen the week after the strike starts, pressure is mounting on Go North West to back down and avoid the costly disruption an all-out strike will cost them.

Rancour on the campuses: UCU action begins to cohere

Universities and colleges have been smouldering with discontent since well before the pandemic. As with so many workers, Covid impact had an insult to injury effect on staff after years of austerity and the neoliberal offensive.

UCU members at Chichester College Group are balloting for industrial action. UCU regional official Michael Moran said: “We are fighting for staff in the English and maths departments whose livelihoods are being attacked, and to make the college stop plans to permanently cut in-person teaching.”

Academic industrial action can sometimes take the form of marking boycotts. This has the potential to really hit the employers hard.

Earlier in February, Solent University UCU suspended industrial action after obtaining a written commitment that there would be no job cuts until February 2022. This deal has been put to members with a recommendation to accept.

The University of East London is gearing up for strike action fresh from its 81%-in-favour vote having broken the turnout threshold.

The Goldsmiths and University of Brighton disputes are still ongoing.

University of Liverpool UCU’s Anthony O’Hanlon captures the mood when he says:  "This brutal assault on jobs is more akin to the ruthless managerialism you would expect to see at a big corporate firm. It is not being proposed out of financial necessity."

This may be the time the employers’ commitment to the market really begins to backfire. 

CWU members at Openreach prepare to strike next week

Repayment Project Engineers (RPEs), working for Openreach have voted massively in favour of two consecutive days of strike action, starting on Wednesday 24th February.

RPEs within Openreach are a small, specialist team of 170 workers who specialise in the movement of fibre cables during major infrastructure builds across the UK. The vote in favour of strike was big with 86% voting yes on a turnout of 96%.

The dispute revolves around Openreach’s plans to downgrade their roles under new plans from the management, something the CWU says represents a dangerous mismatch to their skill-set and responsibilities.

The CWU says that Openreach’s blasé approach to negotiation with them made the strikes inevitable and they remain open to negotiations.

Legal victory for USDAW workers against Tesco’s fire and rehire

Usdaw have secured an important legal win against Tesco’s attempt to fire and re-hire workers on new contracts at their Livingston (Edinburgh) distribution centre. This marks another victory against the outrageous fire and re-hire tactics some employers have announced to undermine jobs, working conditions and safety.

The new contract would have meant staff losing between £4-19,000 a year. Other Tesco distribution centres in Litchfield, Daventry clothing and Avonmouth Tesco are continuing to fight against fire and re-hire.

The court interdict is temporary and specific to the Livingston Tescos branch but Usdaw are rightly calling on Tescos to withdraw its plans at all sites. While Usdaw is prepared to seek a permanent interdict and go to the high court for the other distribution centres, every worker in every Tesco store and distribution centre should be armed with the organising materials and resources to make this judgement a reality at their workplace now.

Lack of covid safety at the DVLA leads to PCS strike ballot

The largest workplace outbreak, more than 500 Covid cases since September has been in the government-run DVLA in Swansea. To this day over 2,000 workers are being made to work in the offices, when only 250 were working in the offices during the first lockdown last year.  One DVLA worker has passed away from Covid. The DVLA run by the Transport secretary is still claiming that it is not an unsafe place to work.

Following online meetings with hundreds of workers, PCS are balloting for strike action on grounds of health and safety, with the ballot to end 11th March. PCS says DVLA workers who invoke their rights under Section 44 will have the full support of the union. 

Naval base workers reject pay offer

Electricians, plumbers; joiners; engineers; supervisors; managers; admin staff and ISS Facility Services workers are all being balloted by Unite the union at Faslane and Coulport naval bases in Scotland in an industrial dispute with employers, Babcock Marine and ISS Facility Services, over pay and bargaining rights. 

The ballot closes on Thursday 25 February and follows a massive 99.7% (85% turnout) rejection of the employers’ pay offer in a consultative ballot.

Industrial action including strike dates could be called as early as mid-March which will have a devastating impact on HM Naval Base Clyde.

Contractual concerns worth between £175-£200 million for the Clyde bases are to be decided in April and there’s a race to the bottom for workers’ pay and terms and conditions while privatisation and outsourcing are listed at the top of the employers’ agenda. 

Stephen Deans, Unite regional coordinating officer said: "If support for industrial action is forthcoming then this dispute, which will happen at a very sensitive juncture, is due to the company's intransigence, and we hope the public and the politicians understand this".

Cash not claps: the big three stand together to fight for local government pay

Unison, Unite and the GMB – the three main local government unions – have submitted their joint pay claim for 2021/22. They are demanding at least 10% for all council and school support workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

These three unions represent 1.4 million staff across the UK including refuse collectors, library staff, and social care workers, all of whom have been central to Covid resistance and provision.  These are also the workers who have endured over a decade of pay cuts in the form of Tory austerity.

This pay claim couldn’t be more politically charged.  

GMB national secretary Rehana Azam, said: “Our members put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public. They stepped up during a public health crisis, now employers and ministers must step up and address the pay crisis in local government and schools.

“Low-paid support staff kept schools open, often covering for teachers without increases in wages. This pandemic has shown the best of our public service workers. Their dedication must be recognised through a substantial settlement that begins to deliver pay justice”.

The three unions previously called for a 10% pay rise last year, but eventually accepted a 2.75% pay increase. It’s the job of our movement to make sure this year’s fight is militant, unified and the beginning of what we mean by “no return to business as usual”.

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