British Gas engineers will fight on in their battle to resist attacks on their terms and conditions, after voting by an overwhelming majority to reject the employer’s latest offer.
Workers voted by a margin of 4-1 to reject the deal, with the largest section of the workforce, Service and Repair engineers, rejecting by a 79% majority on an 88% turnout. Strikes continued from 5-8 March. 8 March was the 30th strike day in the dispute so far. Strikes from Friday-Monday are planned through the rest of the month.
British Gas wants to impose new contracts via “fire and rehire”, effectively dismissing its workforce en masse and re-employing them on worse conditions. Workers who do not agree to the new terms will not be rehired. The new contracts involve the equivalent of a 15% pay cut for many engineers, an increase in compulsory weekend working, and up to 156 additional unpaid hours per year.
British Gas Chief Executive Chris O’Shea said the company had made “significant concessions” but now “had no choice” but to press ahead with plans to impose the new contracts.
The GMB union is now conducting an electronic poll of its members, in which workers are asked to vote on how many more strike days they are prepared to support, from “zero more days” to “more than six days.”
While there is no option in the poll for “indefinite action”, this kind of escalation must surely be considered. The solid support for the strikes thus far, plus the overwhelming rejection of the employer’s offer, is a testament to the commitment and resolve of the workers involved. If 30 days of intermittent strikes have not been enough to force the employer into sufficient concessions, all options for stepping up the pressure should be on the table. GMB should fund any sustained action with strike pay, bolstered by donations from the wider movement if necessary.
A debate continues amongst workers and union activists as to what victory in this fight would look like. Many, including prominent union officials, argue that the aim of the dispute is to force British Gas to withdraw its “fire and rehire” threat, and that if the threat is categorically withdrawn, the dispute could end to allow for negotiations over proposed changes to terms and conditions. GMB National Officer Justin Bowden said: “British Gas didn’t take ‘fire and rehire’ off the table, the main obstacle to a possible settlement. This huge vote to reject the offer by gas and electrical engineers shows that there will be no resolution until the company do so.”
But others argue that the dispute must retain a central focus on the actual content of the new contracts, not merely their method of imposition, meaning victory would involve forcing the employer to comprehensively back down from its plans to make engineers work longer for less.
Following the resounding rejection of the deal and decision to continue the strikes, that debate can continue on picket lines.