Michael Barker, Leicester, Socialist Alternative (ISA England & Wales)
GMB’s industrial dispute at British Gas continues with engineers braving all weather in their fight to protect hard won terms and conditions. With massive public support, thousands of members have already taken 16 strike days against their bullying employer Centrica. The next round of industrial action began this morning with the launch of a four-day strike, and more are in the pipeline.
British Gas workers have risked their lives throughout this pandemic to keep society functioning. Their reward? To have their contracts ripped up by their billionaire bosses and replaced with “modernising” contracts, i.e., ones with poorer conditions.
The engineers are committed to the vital services they provide to the public. Nobody wants to go on strike. But they are determined to stop their new “fire and rehire” CEO, Chris O’Shea, from undermining service provision just to enhance the profits of a few shareholders – himself included.
But this is more than just an attack on terms and conditions – as if that wasn’t bad enough. As one striker reported to us on a picket line: they want to “tear up our union recognition agreement and bring in a less favourable one so that our members cannot be supported when this unscrupulous company tries to shaft them. We need to stand up and be counted, no way O’Shea!”
But O’Shea is just a symptom of the deeper economic malaise afflicting society. Only last year Centrica reported a £1.1bn annual loss and suffered a 17 per cent slide in its share price. At the time, British Gas sacked 5,000 people from its total workforce, and they are proposing yet more redundancies now. In addition, they are now also attacking the terms and conditions of frontline engineers.
This of course is a familiar problem facing all workers. As under capitalism the need for profits always trumps the needs of workers.
We can also see the same type of abuse of our key workers taking place in our NHS. For example, at the Epsom & St Helier NHS Trust health workers were made to pay up to £500 for the privilege of driving and parking at work. A huge protest quickly erupted with GMB members demanding free parking for all who require it. On Wednesday this week, it was announced that the workers had won this dispute. This type of successful result should give confidence to other workers.
So British Gas’s striking workers weren’t entirely surprised when their CEO decided to send them their payslips earlier than normal (minus strike deductions) in an attempt to intimidate them. But such underhand methods will only serve to justify the strike in the eyes of most people.
Of course, Centrica’s brutal approach to managing their workers is hardly surprising given O’Shea’s background at Shell Oil, one of the world’s most famous union-busting companies.
Although he doesn’t boast about it, O’Shea spent seven years working for Shell (between 1998 and 2005) spending his last two years based in Nigeria where he was employed as Shell’s Finance Director. For those who don’t know, Shell is known for its role in propping up and profiting from Nigeria’s military dictatorship which existed at the time; it is also world-famous for its role in (allegedly) executing activists who dare to oppose the corporation’s harmful impact on local communities.
During O’Shea’s tenure as Finance Director at Shell Nigeria, the company admitted paying bribes worth $2million to Nigerian customs officials between 2004 and 2006.
Of course, the same “fire and rehire” practices that O’Shea is attempting to roll out in the UK are well-established in Nigeria. For instance, just before Christmas, Chevron Oil sacked a quarter of their workforce so they could rehire them on worse contracts. In that case the workers responded in the same way as the British Gas workers, by going on strike.
So far British Gas workers have taken 16 days of strike action. But still Chris O’Shea refuses to listen, so key workers at British Gas are now being forced to press on with fresh industrial action taking place in three lots of four-day strikes, the first beginning today (on February 12), and then recommencing on February 19 and February 26.
O’Shea does not want to listen to his workers. He simply wants to crush their resistance like Shell continues to do in Nigeria today. But his employees are having none of it: they are determined they will win; and win they must.
Socialist Alternative believes that every strike action taken by workers is critical, and we fully support all British Gas workers in this hard and tiring dispute. As the famous maxim goes: “Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
- Solidarity with British Gas workers! #StopTheBritishGasFire
- Coordinate strikes across different employers carrying out fire and rehire practices, for example bus drivers at Go North West.
- If Centrica cannot afford to pay its workers properly, it should open its books for financial inspection to the trade unions to see where the money is going
- Take control of the industry out of the hands of the corporate profiteers and into the hands of organised workers, to be run democratically