The clock is running down on the British Gas dispute as workers face mass sackings in less than a week’s time.
Around 7,000 GMB union members have struck for almost 40 days since January. British Gas’ parent company, Centrica, plans to fire and rehire the workforce on worse contracts next Thursday, 1 April.
Bosses demanded that workers sign up to the 15 percent pay cut and other punitive changes by 12 noon this Thursday or face being fired.
On Monday they plan to give formal notice of termination of contracts to workers who’ve refused to sign up to the imposed changes. And then next Thursday, bosses want to sack those workers who’ve held out.
In the face of bosses’ brutality, many workers remained determined to keep fighting as they began their latest four-day walkout on Friday.
Ben, a British Gas engineer who is refusing to sign the new contract, told Socialist Worker he won’t give in to bosses’ bullying. “We’ve had a constant barrage of emails from the company telling us how much money we’re losing by going out on strike,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We were sent a text at 11:30 am—just 30 minutes before the deadline on Thursday—to make sure that we signed the new contract”
Ben pointed out that this decision to sign a new contract or not would have been a tough one for any worker to make. “People may have signed out of anxiety of really not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “And a lot will have signed simply because they need the money.
“Already I’ve talked to two other workers on the phone and they’ve asked me how to undo the signing of the contract.
“I think they felt bad.”
Workers who didn’t sign, like Ben, will now be facing a great deal of uncertainty about their jobs. “British Gas has never told us the plan,” he explained. “We all have so many questions about our livelihoods and they just treat us with contempt.
“I’ve asked what will really happen to us if we refused to sign new contracts and I didn’t get an answer.
“The bosses either really don’t know or are keeping it from us.”
Workers have fought valiantly, but the GMB bureaucracy has failed to lead at key points in the dispute.
It told workers, “If you plan to stay with British Gas after 31 March and intend to ultimately sign a new contract, our lawyers’ advice is to do so by noon on 25 March if you want to avoid the loss of protected terms and changes you have fought for.”
Ben said, “It’s been the workers from the ground up who’ve driven this forward. We have picketed despite not having official places of work—no depots, nowhere to picket. And we’ve done it all in a pandemic.”
“I found out there wasn’t a picket organised in my area, so I organised one. That’s how it’s been.”
The GMB Central Executive Council agreed it would declare a “national lockout dispute” from April 1 if the company goes ahead with sackings. It is unclear what a national lockout would mean for workers.
A lockout is a vicious method used by bosses, where they prevent workers from going into workplaces unless they accept the bosses' diktat.
The union leaders should immediately call an all-out strike and encourage British Gas workers who’ve signed the contract—in the GMB and other unions—to join it.
That strike should be sustained by the whole of the trade union movement. If the bosses force these cuts through— in a company whose profitability rose by 26 percent in the first six months of 2020 —other companies will think they can do the same.
It’s crucial the British Gas workers win.