British Gas engineers are due to strike from 7-11 January, as they fight to stop Centrica, British Gas’s parent company, forcing its workforce onto worse terms and conditions.
Workers voted for industrial action by a nine-to-one majority, and thousands have attended online events to build the campaign. A GMB referendum on the proposed new contracts saw the terms rejected by an 86% majority. The section of the affected workforce organised by GMB and in the dispute is comprised of electricians, smart-meter installers, and engineers repairing, servicing, and installing boilers in residential and commercial locations. The total number of British Gas workers affected by Centrica’s plans is around 20,000.
British Gas wants to level down workers’ terms and conditions to bring them closer to the standard in the wider industry. In part as a legacy of higher levels of unionisation, British Gas engineers’ conditions are relatively better than in other gas companies. If the new contracts are imposed, could see a large proportion of workers facing pay cuts of up to 10%. The new contracts also involve a raft of detrimental changes to terms and conditions. This includes:
• A levelling down of holiday entitlement, representing a loss of up to a week’s holiday for many workers
• A move to an across-the-board 40-hour week, an increase in working hours for many workers
• A new bonus scheme that could see workers deducted pay if they are less active during certain periods of their shift
• A reduction in sick pay, to 13 weeks full pay followed by 39 weeks half pay (currently 24 weeks full pay, 24 weeks half pay)
• A three-year pay freeze for all workers except smart-meter installers
• Rostering changes representing up to an additional 156 working hours per year for some workers
• An increase in compulsory weekend working
British Gas’s planned means of imposing the new contracts - threatening to dismiss its workers and re-engage them on the worse terms – is likely to be an increasing feature of class struggle in the months ahead. Throughout 2020, workers at Tower Hamlets council fought a similar “fire and rehire” scheme, and workers at Heathrow have also struck recently against similar plans. British Airways plans to use the method to worsen conditions for its 30,000-strong workforce. Labour leader Keir Starmer used his speech at the September 2020 TUC Congress to call for “fire and rehire” schemes to be made illegal.
A successful strike by British Gas workers could stop other bosses who may be planning “fire and rehire” initiatives in their tracks. It would also embolden workers facing other attacks, including job cuts, to fight back.
British Gas claims that 80% of its workforce has indicated they will accept new contracts from February, although GMB activists query those figures. In any case, that 80% is drawn from a larger total than the workers involved in the GMB dispute, and represents a provisional indication rather than formal acceptance of the new contracts.
Effective strikes could force bosses to back down. The engineers in dispute are based at home rather than in depots, and so have no ordinary workplace to picket; workers are discussing ways to maximise the impact of the strike.