25 Days of the British Gas Strike

A striking British Gas engineer writes for Tribune about the fight against 'fire and rehire,' how the company has tried to squeeze its workers on the picket line – and why solidarity was the best form of defence.

Two weeks ago, British Gas did the very thing they said they would never do throughout this current dispute– they approached our union, the GMB, willing to re-enter negotiations. They made this offer on the basis that we temporarily suspend our strike action for the weekend ahead, forecast to be the coldest in 10 years.

The GMB put it to a vote: if Yes won out, they would listen to what the company had to say. Before a single vote was cast, though, an email from an area manager was leaked, proclaiming that the strike had been called off for the entire weekend. They were looking, apparently, for overtime to cover the projected busy period.

In the end, workers chose to lift one day of strike action to hear the company out. If they acted in good faith, the union would lift the remaining three days. So we returned to work while meetings were held under the auspices of ACAS, brought in to try mediate between the company and the union. Talks continued and the four days of strike action were called off.

Mixed emotions were in the air that week. There was relief that the strike appeared to be succeeding, and the company had been forced around the table. Contrary to what the media might tell you, no worker wants to go out on strike – it’s a tough time for us and our families. Any hope that there might be progress that would allow us to return without our terms and conditions being destroyed is greeted with enthusiasm.

But there was also a lot of anxiety. We returned to work initially unsure about whether or not the strike would be recommencing. The GMB made clear that if the company wasted our time during the talks, they would simply add another four strike days to the calendar to make up for it. Our position all along has been that if the threat of ‘fire and rehire’ was removed, the strike would be called off. Though talks progressed, the nuclear option remained.

The biggest change the company wants to force through is to take our average working week from 37 hours to 40 hours without any extra pay. In the original offer, workers that stated their intention to sign the new contract by Christmas were given a one-off payment of £2,000 – a sum which wouldn’t cover 9 months of extra hours, let alone the rest of your career. It was, effectively, a bung.

Many engineers signed the intention, feeling that they were ‘hedging their bets’ as they hadn’t technically signed the new contract – they would still be allowed to strike, and would have something of a cushion to soften the blow of the industrial action. The bung was paid on the proviso of signing the contract by 5 February.

But contrary to the company’s expectations, many of those who stated their intention to sign the new contract by Christmas became emboldened by the solidarity of the strike action, and chose to run down the deadline without signing. As a consequence, those engineers were hit badly in their February pay. On top of the days lost through strike action, the company deducted £2,000 from their wages.

Typically, a month’s payroll in British Gas is paid in the middle of the month and includes overtime accrued from the first few days. But in February the company announced that industrial action taken up to the 8th would be deducted from that month’s pay, instead of March’s paypacket.

This put the company in a curious position of deducting strike pay for those taking action on 8 February, but not paying overtime for those who chose to work that day providing emergency cover. Incredibly, some engineers even went into negative pay.

Many of us felt this was a new low – an attempt to hit the morale of engineers who had already suffered eight months of sleepless nights over the threat of fire and rehire. The bitterness felt by workers who have given years of their life to this company can’t be overestimated.

After more than a week of negotiations we were finally briefed on what the company was proposing. Unfortunately, it amounts to the same deal as before with a bit of window dressing.

In the service and repair department, British Gas say they will now pay an additional £2,540 next year to make up for the extra hours. But from that point on, we are on our own.

The only way we can make up the loss in wages by 2023 is to earn it through a mechanism called CTAP – an untested and poorly-defined (even by the company’s admission) bonus scheme. It isn’t even ready to be implemented by the time our new contracts begin on 1 April.

British Gas were willing to state that they recognise ‘fire and rehire’ has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of its workforce, and made the promise that it will never be used again – but this is an empty gesture while it remains an active threat in the current dispute.

Our union has taken a neutral stance on the new proposal. The decision was taken because British Gas claim that we were cajoled by them into voting against the initial deal – without pressure from imaginary union bully boys, management apparently can’t see why 86 percent of us could conclude that a bad deal, under threat of dismissal, is a bad deal. The revised offer is currently going to a vote.

The importance of this dispute goes way beyond just our workforce in British Gas. If a profit-making multinational corporation can pull off ‘fire and rehire’ and downgrade its workforce’s conditions under the guise of pandemic hardship, then there’s no stopping other companies from following suit.

Given the economic uncertainty today, the thought of corporations being allowed to ride roughshod over workers’ rights should be a concern to us all. For now, our strike continues – Friday to Monday every week in March. Your support is much appreciated.