For British Gas workers a nightmare began in July of last year.
The boss of parent company Centrica, Chris O’Shea, revealed vicious plans to fire and rehire the workforce if they didn’t accept detrimental changes to their terms and conditions.
It was an outrageous bosses’ assault. But the loss of jobs and working conditions for thousands of workers was not inevitable.
The problem was the lack of effective strategy on the workers’ side.
In August workers voted in an indicative ballot—and 95 percent backed strikes. It then took months for the union to hold a formal ballot—losing the chance for a swift reaction.
In December, 89 percent of workers voted to strike.
Around 7,000 workers began strikes on 7 January—six months after the threat was first made.
There has been no trouble with the workers’ readiness to fight. They have solidly taken part in 43 days of strikes.
But at many vital points, the national leadership from the GMB was lacking.
In an early mistake, the union called off four days of strikes for negotiations—on the coldest and the busiest weekend of the year when British Gas was vulnerable.
The negotiations, facilitated by conciliation service Acas, resulted in the strikers being offered a contract that was described simply as a “rehash of the old one”
But the GMB leadership then sent an email to strikers saying, “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.”
It was a demoralising blow, leading to divisions and a loss of momentum. Yet despite this around 1,000 workers refused to sign the renewed contract. Bosses gave them until 14 April to decide whether to surrender or leave the company.
Shockingly the GMB issued no statements regarding the workers who were sacked until 14 April itself. Many members felt abandoned by their union.
There was an alternative.
The GMB should have moved early to an all-out strike. Instead of just a backlog of repairs, bosses would have had a crisis on their hands.
Other unions with members in different sections at British Gas should have come out in solidarity with the engineers.
Instead there are allegations that they did deals with management to advance their own standing at the company.
The TUC union federation could have called for protests and walkouts. It could have launched a national financial appeal to support an all-out strike. British Gas was a chance to draw a line in the sand, to say the union movement was not going to accept fire and rehire.
Instead bosses have wrecked workers’ lives.
The courage and determination of the strikers has been betrayed.
‘If we’d gone on all-out strike, we could have made some progress’
“Right up until 14 April I was in turmoil over whether I should sign or leave British Gas,” Scottish Gas worker Simon told Socialist Worker.
“But then it became clear, I couldn’t continue to work for a company that has put us through this.”
“It was weird not seeing my blue van outside my house. It’s something I’ve seen for so many years.”
He is a second generation Scottish Gas worker. He and his father have worked more than 50 years at the company between them.
For Simon and many others the belief that a job at British Gas was a “job for life” has ended.
Throughout the strikes, Simon said there was no shortage of solidarity from the public.
Hundreds of customers have said they will cancel their contracts with the company after seeing how they treat workers.
Simon added solidarity was expressed by colleagues.
“The office workers at British Gas, who are mainly women, have joined us on picket lines and brought us food every single day we’ve had them,” he said.
“They were forced to sign up to new contracts much earlier than us. I’ve been so impressed and inspired by their support throughout.”
Simon said that although he can “hold his head up high” after striking for over 40 days there were some vital missteps that were made in the dispute.
“The pattern of our strike days became too predictable. It became easy for management to work around them,” he said.
“If we’d gone on all-out strike or just changed the strike days up to be less predictable we could have made some progress.”
Simon acknowledged the importance of picket lines organised by workers. “I attended a lot of pickets and I would try and persuade
other workers to stand on them also,” he said.
He also stressed the need for more walkouts and action.
“Covid was a big problem,” he said. “Without it, we could have had massive marches through cities. It would have been really hard to ignore.”
Despite suffering such a horrific defeat Simon believes that the workers’ fight has hurt bosses.
“The fact is British Gas has lost a lot of respect from the public,” he said. “They’ve also lost hundreds of some of their most highly skilled workers.”
Simon and all the other strikers should be proud of the role they have played.
They richly deserved a much better outcome.