Today, GMB members working for British Gas begin five days of action in the biggest gas strike since the 1970s, in response to their employer’s threat to ‘fire and rehire’ the 20,000-strong workforce on worse pay, terms and conditions if they do not accept them at will.
Engineers for British Gas work day and night installing and repairing heating, metering and electricity systems that keep homes and businesses warm, lights on and energy supplied to premises such as shops, offices and emergency service buildings. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic we have been classed as key workers ourselves and many of us also volunteered to deliver food parcels to vulnerable people during the first lockdown in spring last year.
We have also continued to work while years of crises have unfolded above us at British Gas and its parent energy provider company Centrica. Before Christmas just gone, 7,500 gas and electrical engineers voted overwhelmingly to reject proposals from Centrica to cut our pay, terms and conditions. On 17 December we voted by 89% that we would be prepared to take strike action if needed. We now have no other choice but to take this action after Centrica sent us an ultimatum in response – agree the cuts by 23 December or lose protected terms.
We have done everything asked of us and more, yet we find our jobs in the firing line because our employer has decided that the way out of a crisis created in the boardroom is to make the workers on the frontline pay for it.
It wasn’t loyal engineers, call centre workers, or administration staff in charge as Centrica lost three million customers over the last five years. The company has a history of responding to tough times with massive rounds of job cuts, while handing out skyrocketing pay packages to its executives.
In 2018, Centrica increased its energy prices twice and announced 4,000 job cuts; a year before, then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Iain Conn had collected perks that increased his full pay package by 40 percent to £4.1 million. In 2019, Centrica hit the headlines again when office staff in Glasgow and Leeds were made redundant while Conn was awarded another pay rise of 44 percent to £2.4 million – making his pay 59 times that of an average British Gas worker.
Centrica’s financial troubles continue, but the underlying wealth it takes from workers’ labour remains clear. The domestic heating business alone reported a 27 percent rise in operating profit (£229 million) in the six months to 30 June 2020, compared to the previous year. Centrica also reported group-wide operating profits of £901 million in 2019.
Our members have always made it clear that by good-faith negotiations with our trade union, GMB, Centrica could create a plan to grow the company out of its crisis, instead of cutting its way out.
And there has been opportunity for Centrica bosses to change direction. Since starting in April 2020, new CEO Chris O’Shea has talked a lot about what he thinks good employment should look like: from developing ‘a culture where all employees feel valued’, to ‘modernising and simplifying the way we do business’.
O’Shea is due to take home an annual package worth almost £800,000—twenty times the basic earnings of an experienced British Gas engineer—and the days of multi-million executive pay packages could return as soon as this year.
Any hopes that O’Shea would break with years of Centrica’s failed business model were snuffed out when 5,000 more redundancies were announced in July 2020, and our members were told they must accept new conditions including longer hours, no overtime pay, and reduced benefits.
In the end, as usual, management proposals for ‘modernisation’ and ‘flexibility’ boiled down to cuts to workers’ pay per job, and worse terms and conditions, which amount to little more than a zero-hour contract attached to a bonus scheme.
Upon finding his gamble unpopular, the CEO—who spoke at length about what ‘good employment’ means for his workers—decided to pick a fight with them. He threatened, while negotiations are ongoing, to ‘fire and rehire’ British Gas’s entire 20,000-strong workforce on the new terms and conditions anyway. Doing so would exploit weaknesses in the law which allow employers to sack workers, only to reemploy them on reduced terms.
Following the example of British Airways, this bullying tactic by Centrica is as old-style exploitation as you can get. It’s the same corporate behaviour that gas workers organised together to fight over a hundred years ago, creating the unions which form the GMB today. No negotiation can ever be conducted in a fair and balanced way when the employer attacks the rights of its workers to bargain and negotiate collectively through their trade union.
The victories that workers in energy—among many other industries—have won over this kind of exploitation over many decades has meant that the scourge of ‘fire and rehire’ is incredibly unpopular, even if, disgracefully, still legal.
But GMB is campaigning in Parliament to outlaw these tactics, and in December, 140 MPs on a cross-party basis wrote to Chris O’Shea calling on him to take away the threat to British Gas workers and negotiate an agreement with the union. The threat has also been condemned by the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers and by local authorities across the country, including in Birmingham, Newcastle, Trafford, and Plymouth, some of which have contracts with British Gas themselves.
Despite that, O’Shea could end up cashing in on picking a fight with his workforce, personally standing to gain £300,000 if his shareholding of £1.2m rises by 25 percent as forecast by City analysts.
The gamble comes at the cost of wide condemnation of Centrica’s negotiating tactics from across the political spectrum, and from British Gas engineers who refuse to be made to pay for the company’s financial problems again: problems that have been made worse because of years of corporate greed and the prioritisation of shareholder profits over the livelihoods of the workers who make them.
In refusing to take their threat off the table, O’Shea and Centrica have lost an opportunity to work together to solve the company’s problems, instead designating the workers the problem. The Centrica boardroom is once again moving against their own dedicated workforce and their union, who have a long and proud history of fighting against exploitation.
Today our members will be making history in the biggest gas strike since the 1970s. With your solidarity in this strike, Centrica won’t just be picking a fight with British Gas workers, but with workers across all industries in Britain who are fighting to end ‘fire and rehire’ for good. Please stand with us this week: send a message of support to British Gas workers on GMB’s website here, or on social media with #StopTheBritishGasFire.