At a public online rally on 18 January for the British Gas engineers striking against “fire-and-rehire” attacks on their pay and conditions (see page 24), Paul Vowles, a British Gas striker from the West Midlands, said he was “bursting with pride” at the action he and his workmates have taken so far.
He criticised British Gas bosses for “hiding behind the pandemic” in order to force through cuts. He also highlighted the effectiveness of the social media campaign in support of the dispute, especially messages of support from strikers’ families which emphasise the impact the proposed new contracts will have on workers’ family life.
Vowles stressed the importance of continual communication amongst workers, and between members and reps, to strengthen solidarity and build momentum in the dispute.
Striker Ciara O’Neill said British Gas workers were striking on behalf of all workers who might face “fire and rehire” attacks, and that the aim was to “stamp the practice out”. O’Neill said current workers had a responsibility to leave good terms and conditions for future generations of workers. She explained the impact the new contracts would have on her, saying she would be forced to rely on relatives for childcare due to the increased working hours.
Danny Faith, a GMB rep at British Airways, discussed BA workers’ own struggle against “fire and rehire”, and Shona Thompson, a Glasgow council worker and a leader of the victorious 2018 women workers’ strike for equal pay, brought solidarity greetings. GMB officials Justin Bowden, the union’s lead officer for the gas sector, and Gary Smith, himself a former gas worker, also spoke. Opening the rally, GMB President Barbara Plant connected the strike to the union’s history and its roots in the 1889 Beckton gas workers’ strike for an eight-hour day, led by Will Thorne and supported by Eleanor Marx.
Messages of support were heard from TV celebrity Judge Rinder, ex-footballer Neville Southall, the band Primal Scream, singer Billy Bragg, and the comedian Frankie Boyle.
Labour Party leader and deputy leader Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner addressed the rally, pledging the full support of the Labour Party and committing that Labour will outlaw “fire and rehire” when next in government. Starmer said that strikers “could easily have felt powerless” in the face of bosses’ attacks, but instead had “stood up, taken action, and built their power as a collective.” He pledged his “full solidarity” to the strikers and “all workers resisting ‘fire and rehire’.” Left-wing Labour MP Nadia Whittome also spoke, and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford sent video messages of support. Labour leaders’ support for the strike provides an opening for rank-and-file Labour Party activists to pursue the issue of strike solidarity throughout the party, and fight for active support for all workers in struggle to be the default stance for Labour.
Although the breadth of support was evident, there were some important differences in tone, emphasis, and content between some speakers. Some, like Brown and Drakeford, emphasised the need for a “social partnership” approach between unions and employers — an ultimately inoperable model, given the irreconcilably opposed interests between workers and bosses. Several speakers posed the aim of the strike as being solely to resist the “fire and rehire” threat, and indicated that some changes to terms and conditions might be acceptable, as long as they were “negotiated fairly.”
Forcing British Gas bosses to withdraw their “fire and rehire” threat would undoubtedly be a huge concession, and a testament to the strength and determination of British Gas workers’ action, as well as a win that could stop the wider bosses’ “fire and rehire” offensive in its tracks. But should that victory be secured, British Gas will almost certainly continue to pursue the changes they want to make. Staying mobilised and being prepared for further action will still be necessary until British Gas bosses abandon their plans to impose — by whatever means — detrimental changes to workers’ conditions.
In the rally, several speakers stressed the importance of the GMB’s strike fund, set up to ensure “no worker is forced to choose between going on strike and financial hardship.” The fund doubled its £10,000 target within a few days of being set up, and at the time of writing stands at £23,322, aiming for a new target of £25,000.
• Strike fund here