Last summer British Gas declared that if its employees didn’t agree to new terms and conditions, they would resort to using fire and rehire – an employment loophole that has allowed employers to trample on workers throughout the course of this pandemic. Engineers collectively rejected the lesser contracts in two separate votes, and took to industrial action to fight against this morally objectionable position from their company.
After three months of strike action, the business sent out dismissal notices to almost a thousand engineers on 29 March. The once great British Gas had reduced itself to legalised corporate bullying, and the race to the bottom in the UK workplace was well and truly underway.
British Gas preyed on its workforce, calculating that many would feel that they had nowhere else to go in the turbulent economic conditions which followed Brexit and the pandemic. Most significantly of all, their timing prevented us from holding mass gatherings which would have given us that much needed press coverage which never arrived.
In its absence, the main tools of the strike were social media and pickets outside British Gas offices. In all weathers, engineers, office workers, GMB reps and families came together in socially-distanced protest against British Gas’ outrageous treatment of their workers. They truly were the backbone of our strike.
The media should consider its lack of coverage for this dispute – involving 7,000 workers – a mark of great shame. On the infrequent occasion when they did cover our story, they never forced British Gas to answer for their actions. Instead, they made-do with written statements, some of which contained outright lies, including exaggerating our base salary.
British Gas’ refusal to engage or send representatives to make their case should have been a red flag. It demonstrated how guilty the company was about its actions. Or, at least, it would have, if the media was prepared to research the story. Yes, there are always two sides to any story, but why should they give uncritical coverage to a party that repeatedly fails to turn up?
I decided early in the strike that, win or lose, my days with British Gas were numbered. I couldn’t accept how they had treated us. At one point I considered riding it out until my qualifications would be due for renewal in 2022; I would have been given training on oil boilers had I stayed. But, as the strike rolled on and senior management dug their heels in, I felt so aggrieved by the company’s behaviour that the money became immaterial to me. I decided to let the business fire me if it came to it – and it did.
I had to bite my tongue several times on Twitter when I was asked variations of ‘if it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave?’ I felt that opening up about my intentions to go would have been undermining the strike effort, accepting defeat and legitimising the fire and rehire tactics. In all honesty, I never wanted anything more than for British Gas to come its senses. I always saw the strike as the workers trying to save the company from its management. But, in the end, it became clear that was an impossible mission.
I’ve had people ask how I’m feeling since I was served my notice and made it known that I won’t be signing the new contract. It’s a tough question to answer. On the one hand, I’m relieved that I’m no longer working for an employer that would put their staff through hell – like they have in recent weeks. But on the other, I’m sad that I’m closing a 10-year chapter of my life.
In 2011, I came to a crossroads where I had the option of studying politics at university or starting an apprenticeship with British Gas. In the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, I opted for job security because that’s what British Gas offered back then. It doesn’t these days! And that in itself goes some way to describing the damage the new management have done.
I have no regrets about starting with the company. They gave me a good trade; I’ve made great friendships and I’m told the door is open should I wish to return. I enjoyed the work, but I’m far from being the only one who feels crushed by the callousness of senior management – and the culture of bureaucracy and inefficiency that characterises British Gas under their leadership.
Political support for our strike has been heard in all parliaments of the UK. Boris Johnson, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford have each condemned the use of fire and rehire tactics. Keir Starmer declared that we had his ‘full solidarity and support.’ The SNP’s Gavin Newlands launched a Private Members’ Bill to outlaw fire and rehire. But none of this was enough to save our jobs – and it is a reminder of what workers are up against when the Tories are in government, regardless of the nice words we might hear.
In mid-February we were surveyed by our union, the GMB, on whether we would suspend strike action for four days and hold talks with the company ahead of the coldest winter spell in 10 years. Apart from my decision to leave, this was my hardest one to make of the whole strike. Part of me felt that if we declined to hear the company out, British Gas would break their media silence and go on a whirlwind tour of media outlets to barrack us for failing to talk ahead of a harsh forecast, thus impacting sympathy for the strike.
In the end I opted to vote against talks, feeling that the company had six weeks of industrial action to mitigate particularly busy time periods. They could have called off fire and rehire at any time – which would’ve ended the strike. Frankly, I was in no mood to do them any favours. But many engineers did vote for talks to be held. They assumed that the union would present their primary agenda to have fire and rehire removed, and if this wasn’t entertained, they would walk out of the room and recommence the strike. Continuing talks with fire and rehire still on the table was a mistake, and in the end not much ground was ceded.
The GMB sent out legal advice in mid-March that stated the ‘last chance to sign up to the protected terms and changes you fought for is by signing the contract before noon on 25 March.’ By that stage, any wind that was left in the sails quickly died. It had been a long campaign. Without the union’s backing to hold out on signing the new contract, engineers were faced with a prisoner’s dilemma – in isolation, you can’t be sure that enough people will act in the collective interest; if too few come forward there will be consequences for the ones that do stick their neck out. So, instead, many opted for the safer outcome.
By these terms, engineers that signed by the cut-off date would be given £4,540 spread over the next two years; those that did not sign by 25 March either faced dismissal or signed the new contract without any enhancements. However, in a move smacking of desperation, the company revised this deadline (the third time that it has moved the goalposts, the original deadline for the offer was 23 December) stating that anyone who signed the contract before 15 April would receive protected terms.
Had we remained resolute in March, it’s possible that the company would have balked at the idea of sacking thousands. Although we’ll likely never know the actual number of people who left over the last year because of this dispute, stark images and videos have been occupying my social media over the past few days of blue vans being returned up and down the country. The GMB estimates that around 1,000 engineers have chosen not to sign the new contract.
At these moments, it’s natural to ask why a strike failed. There’s no doubt in my mind that our industrial action could have succeeded if everyone had participated. We do, after all, have a unionised workforce in the field of over 95%. Those that never took part in industrial action will still enjoy the small benefits of the renegotiations and the protections that the union affords. Why did they not strike? Fearing that they would fall foul of the company is my best guess.
Some claimed that they didn’t want to let vulnerable customers down. This is a pretty poor rationale. Do these engineers not take annual leave and sick days? Financial concerns were cited as well, but it’s not an excuse that holds water. Shop stewards made clear that engineers could supply their labour through the union for emergency cover. It was agreed this would pay the same as a normal day’s work, and would not constitute crossing a picket line.
This would be done on a daily basis, thereby ensuring that the company couldn’t book any work. I’m told the uptake on this was poor; individuals chose to just turn up to work without going through the union, allowing the company enough manpower to keep ticking on. For combustion to take place in an environment you need fuel, an ignition source and oxygen. In our case, we were the fuel, senior management let off the spark and those that didn’t strike supplied oxygen to the British Gas fire. That’s a decision they’ll have to live with.
But, ultimately, the lion’s share of the blame should lie with the Board of Directors. They chose to appoint Chris O’Shea as the CEO, and haven’t reined him in at any point. During ‘negotiations’ British Gas fully embraced a kind of ‘woke’ capitalism that tells you so much about how shallow corporate responsibility politics really is. O’Shea would opine on Black Lives Matter, discuss the importance of mental health and even take part in Movember for charitable causes – all while threatening thousands of his workers with the sack.
Most of the time that he was addressing us in his vlogs, he would be wearing a hoodie. The aim was to make himself look approachable – ‘I’m the guy that’s firing you, but let’s grab a cappuccino afterwards.’ It felt like our company was being run by a third-rate Steve Jobs. Nobody was fooled, and in fact, it should serve as a cautionary tale to other workers. How can corporate managers claim to be alert to the injustices of the world when they are the root cause of so many sleepless nights for their workforce?
I doubt that line managers will be relishing the labour crisis that this upper management has caused. The shifts and on-call rotations have already been drawn up for the next six months, most areas will probably have holes now due to the April exodus. On top of that, the workload has been piling up due to Covid and the strike. The Financial Conduct Authority will fine British Gas heavily if they’re seen to be falling behind in their contractual obligations. Though perhaps it won’t come to that considering customers have been cancelling their agreements in solidarity with us.
The new terms and conditions make it easier for the company to dismiss workers who fail to perform to their arbitrary measures. Homecare agreements are not cheap, and customers expect value for money. Will they get it under the new engineer performance directives, measures that put quantity over quality?
If I had one piece of advice to give to striking workers, it would be to recognise your colleagues. In a male-dominated environment like field services in British Gas, the walls tend to go up. If someone goes above and beyond like speaking at a rally or going on the TV, let them know they did a good job; if your shop steward has been having a hellish time of it, make it known that you appreciate what they’re putting in; and if a colleague is keeping quiet, try to get them to open up. A little goes a long way.
The last day of employment for engineers who chose not to sign the new contract was 14 April – a fitting date, the same one that the RMS Titanic hit the iceberg. Our union, the GMB, is pledging that this fight was far from over. They called one last strike day in solidarity with those leaving, and to highlight the still-prevalent issue of fire and rehire.
Though the battle was lost, the war is not over. The GMB is launching a grievance against a mandatory overtime clause in the contracts that the company failed to provide adequate information on during negotiations. I understand there are further strikes to come in the months ahead.
Those who stood together and fought against this egregious attack on our rights can hold their heads high. Even looking from the outside now I want the company to do well for the sake of everyone still there. I had some good times in British Gas, but it’s a shame that the last year was so bleak. It’s my sincere hope that no other workers go through what we have. Unfortunately, until the law changes, I don’t think my hopes will be realised.