British Gas workers are reaching the end of a historic 5 day strike action against fire and re-hire tactics. Lewis Akers spoke to young workers about their experience of the strike and why their fight is so important.
“On the 31 st of march if we don’t sign the contract we become unemployed”, says David, a British Gas smart meter engineer. It’s a situation no worker should ever face.
British Gas – who are owned by Centrica – are the latest in a long line of well-known brands who are attempting to exploit the public health crisis for their own ends. GMB, the union representing British Gas workers have said the company issued an “ultimatum for workers to agree cuts to pay, terms and conditions“ or face dismissal. This tactic has been referred to as ‘fire and rehire’ with companies threatening staff with dismissal if they don’t accept a downgrade of conditions.
What has distinguished British Gas workers is that they are organised and have strong union representation. They have been able to courageously defend themselves and overcome anti-trade union laws with an 89% vote in favour of industrial action. Their five-day strike, which started on the 7 January, will be the biggest gas workers strike since the 1970s. Though the strike days are coming to an end, the dispute remains.
David (not his real name) a GMB member, says that “if we didn’t have a union we would be like everyone else; we would have to roll over and take it.” But because of the strong representation that these workers have they are able to stand up to the attack. Stephen, a GMB Rep at British gas echoed this belief, saying that if they didn’t have a union they would have been “forced to accept this long ago.”
One of the key reasons trade unions have declined in recent years is that, as Stephen says: “it’s not a unionized generation – there’s not been any high-profile stuff like this” in recent years. The impact of the strike on younger workers is changing all that, he says: “Guys are kind of educating themselves as they go along with this” and he hopes that “they can pass it on” and “share the knowledge.” If these strikers are successful, he continues, the young workers who are on strike will be able to say “I survived this” and increase the fighting power of a new generation of workers.
One of the main rallying calls of the strike has been “don’t take our daddy time.” Among the new terms and conditions Centrica are attempting to impose are drastic changes to working patterns, that will severely impact family life and caring responsibilities.
Social media has been emblazoned with pictures of striker’s children holding banners expressing workers’ fears for work life balance. David explains that the change would mean that working patterns will “be changeable every 6 weeks” to suit the needs of the business. Stephen says that workers were only “asking for a fair crack at our working day” and that the changes will mean “longer hours for less”. Stephen has a 6-month-old daughter, and these changes would be “eating into that time” he has with her. David says that changes to weekend working could mean that he “could be working every weekend” during the only time he gets with his children.
Both workers seem to feel they have been let down by the company. Stephen who has worked for British gas for a number of years says that he is extremely “proud” to work for the company and that his experiences have been “brilliant – they have given me a lot” but he says on the other hand “as a trade unionist I think we need to stand up.”
Despite big returns for the owners (Centrica recorded a group-wide operating profit of £901 million last year) the workers are aware they are being squeezed for yet more profit. As David points out “the implementation of the price cap on energy” has meant “they have to look at other things they can do to make sure shareholders are happy.” In this situation the maximization of profit has meant “they are trying to get more out of the workforce and cut corners.”
However, it is clear that although to both workers the strike is extremely personal they have much wider concerns about what happens if these changes are pushed through. “British Gas will set a standard here” and “other companies will follow,” Stephen argues.
David agrees: “If British Gas get away with it, next it will be your contracts, your children’s contracts.” Workers across many sectors have an interest in supporting this strike and defeating fire and rehire tactics.
For this reason, workers at British Gas deserve our full solidarity. Any workers who take action like this demonstrate bravery. Sometimes workers feel that a time of crisis, such as the one we are living through, is not a time to fight. But this is wrong. Rather, workers need to be even more prepared to stand up to attacks. As Stephen says: “With the power of the union, if we stick together we will get through it.”
If you would like to show your support for workers in dispute at British Gas please support their social media campaign. Both workers expressed how much the support from the public meant to them and how it has given them a great source of resolve. We urge readers to organise any solidarity efforts they can. For more information visit the GMB website at https://gmb.org.uk/campaign/back-british-gas-workers