Why are these men and women prepared to sacrifice pay day after day?

A placard is held on the picket line at Murdoch House in Bothwell on day one of a 5-day strike by Br

A placard is held on the picket line on day one of a five-day strike by British Gas engineers in a dispute over pay and conditions - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Strikes in 2021 rarely gain much national media attention, so it would be unsurprising if readers were unaware of a bitter dispute involving thousands of workers employed by Centrica subsidiary British Gas, still profitable and Britain’s largest energy supplier.

Almost 90 per cent of GMB union members balloted backed walkouts on a 59pc turnout.

Since January 7 some 9,000 GMB members have struck for 16 days with further action now suspended for talks with the employer. Why, then, are these men and women prepared to sacrifice pay day after day?

George Binette explains why NEU members in Tower Hamlets are striking on December 9.

George Binette explains why thousands of British Gas workers are on strike - Credit: George Binette

Last July, amidst the pandemic, British Gas management announced its intention to alter employment contracts, incorporating worse terms and conditions for over 20,000 staff.

While negotiations led to management dropping some demands, the company still insisted on a longer working week for field engineers – largely GMB members – without additional pay. Skilled engineers responsible for boiler installation and repair now face working 156 extra hours a year for the same salary alongside a cut in sick pay and holidays.

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GMB members overwhelmingly rejected management’s demands. In response Centrica’s chief executive, Chris O’Shea (base salary: £775,000), seized on legislation from 1992 to threaten to “fire and rehire” these workers on imposed new contracts.

The threat has sparked both anxiety and anger. A striking engineer in the West Midlands said “...they’re holding this ‘fire and rehire’ over us like a metaphorical gun to our heads”.

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British Gas has provoked determined resistance, but it’s hardly alone in using the 1992 law. Employers including BA, Heathrow Airport Holdings, a Birmingham NHS Trust and even Tower Hamlets council have relied on the power to “sack and reengage”.

Labour nationally calls for the law’s repeal, but in the meantime British Gas workers needs the party’s activists and politicians along with other trade unionists to back their fight.

  • George Binette is the Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP trade union liaison officer.

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