British Gas workers struck from 7-11 January, resisting their employer’s attempts to level down conditions by sacking workers en masse and rehiring them on worse contracts. The strike was extremely solid, with activists reporting that its strength grew as it went on. The workers’ union, GMB, is set to announce further strikes.
Workers’ morale is high, bolstered by significant engagement with and support for the strike via social media. Workers report numerous instances of self-employed gas contractors committing on social media to take no work on British Gas strike days.
British Gas bosses are clearly rattled. Reports suggest over 50% of engineers were subject to direct pressure from management in advance of the strike, demanding to know if they would be participating and attempting to pressure them into working.
Matthew Bateman, British Gas managing director, was seen in leaked footage from a management video call expressing his relief that the high Covid death toll and the storming of the US Capitol had pushed the strike further down the news agenda. This has provoked significant anger amongst workers. On a previous company video call, the highly-paid Bateman paid tribute to engineers for their efforts during the pandemic, hailing their courage in responding to calls in Covid-positive households who were “relying” on them. Through tears, he said: “You can’t help but start thinking about your own family when I think about what I’m asking of you.” Many are now questioning the sincerity of those sentiments, given Bateman’s evident determination to dramatically worsen the working conditions of those same engineers.
In the leaked video, Bateman went on to say that he wanted to avoid a “school playground fight” with the GMB, which would not benefit British Gas “in the court of public opinion”, and would not represent a “net net win” for the company. Whether the term “net net win” means anything, or if it is in fact a piece of laughable management jargon, is yet to be confirmed.
Online GMB strike rallies have drawn thousands of participants, and have been addressed by figures including Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, and left-wing journalist Owen Jones. The union plans to establish a strike fund to finance sustained and ongoing action, which will be open to donations from supporters in the wider labour movement. Details here.
The new contracts British Gas is demanding workers accept, on pain of dismissal, would represent:
• 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.
The new settlement would also see the introduction of a monitoring app, similar to that used by Amazon to monitor warehouse workers’ productivity, which would be used to monitor any “dead time” during shifts, time which workers would then be expected to make up.
British Gas bosses can expect not only further strikes, but informal resistance across the workforce in the intervening weeks.
Should British Gas workers’ action force their employer to back away from their “fire and rehire” threat, and lead to concrete concessions in the content of any new contract settlement, the strikes will have dealt a significant blow to a burgeoning employers’ offensive at an early, and potentially vital, stage.