British Gas engineers in the GMB union struck for the 43rd time on 14 April, as their employer dismissed workers who refused to agree to new contracts. Activists estimate that around 500 workers have been dismissed, a higher total than British Gas bosses reportedly expected.
The scale of the sackings has left the company understaffed, with some workers reporting being contacted by British Gas managers immediately following their dismissal to be offered work as sub-contractors.
Because the new contracts were imposed, there is now no collective agreement on working arrangements in place at British Gas. Paradoxically, this gives workers some leeway to subvert the new arrangements. Previous agreements included some modifications to statutory minimums around working time and rest between shifts in order to facilitate emergency call-outs. With no such agreements in place, workers can revert to statutory standards, which may make job allocation harder for British Gas management.
Union reps and activists are meeting to discuss next steps, including the formulation of demands for the content of a new collective agreement. Although there will undoubtedly be a period of regrouping, the union must go on the offensive as soon as feasibly possibly, with an assertive campaign and new industrial action ballot to win that agreement.
There is no prettifying the facts that workers have, at this stage of the dispute, suffered a defeat via the imposition of British Gas’s new contracts and that the union has been weak in response. But the dispute has brought forward and galvanised a new layer of activists and reps who are determined to renew and reinvigorate union organisation in British Gas, and are not prepared to accept the status quo as the dispute’s final stage.
The union leadership must empower and encourage, rather than tempering or holding back, the determination of that layer.