GMB union complicit in imposing British Gas fire and rehire contracts

British Gas has pressed ahead with plans to dismiss all engineers who refuse to sign an inferior contract including a pay cut of up to 15 percent. It has only agreed to put back the deadline from April 1 to April 14.

Over 7,000 full-time engineers and members of the GMB union have been in dispute with British Gas since early January and have taken 42 days of strike action against the fire and rehire contracts. This has been the largest industrial action in the sector for four decades.

The new contract is based on adding an extra 5.5-8 hours of unpaid work and travel time to the working week. As in every industry and across the public sector, workers face demands to slave away without any family or social life, and on less pay, for the sole purpose of boosting productivity and profits and enforcing austerity cuts.

British Gas is prepared to terminate overnight the employment of a section of its 20,000-strong workforce, whose length of service ranges from a minimum of 10 years through to 40 years, for refusing to forfeit their terms and conditions. Those who do not sign under duress will not receive any redundancy, only 12 weeks’ pay based on the minimum notice required.

The resort to dictatorial methods by the company has not been enough by itself to intimidate workers. British Gas relies on the collusion of the GMB against its own members. The union’s response to the issuing of the dismissal notices on March 25 was to advise strikers in an email, weeks beforehand, that they had no other option than to sign.

The union is solely responsible for the division this has created among the striking engineers whose action had been solid up to this point. The company now boasts that 95 percent have signed the new contract. Whether this is true cannot be verified. Despite the treachery of the GMB, hundreds of engineers, and according to one source up to 1,000 workers, have refused to sign.

The GMB is now taking steps to wind down the opposition entirely. It has postponed the date for a further national one-day walk out until April 14, the very day engineers will be dismissed for refusing to sign or transferred over to the new terms against their will. The one-day action is the equivalent of reading the last rites over any genuine fight.

British Gas engineers cannot allow the struggle they have waged to be betrayed in this way. It is necessary to draw the lessons of the dispute so far and break the stranglehold of the GMB.

Workers have been incensed by the profit drive of the multi-million-pound company, whose operations would be impossible without their expertise and labour.

During the pandemic, many engineers remained on the job conducting repairs and maintenance on boilers and heating systems in households up and down the country, entering homes at the risk of COVID-19. Others participated in the distribution of food parcels on behalf of the Trussell Trust to the vulnerable and needy by repurposing their vehicles to perform deliveries. During this period, while they were praised officially as heroes, the company was drawing up plans, announced last summer, to tear up their terms and conditions.

The sentiments of British Gas engineers have been made clear in comments under the Twitter hashtag, #StoptheBritishGasFire

One worker said, “I’m being fired pure and simple. For not accepting inferior terms and conditions from a company making millions. The man responsible will pocket millions in bonuses.”

In reference to British Gas CEO another stated, “Chris O’Shea, [CEO of British Gas parent company Centrica] you are the lowest form of life. How much are you paid to ruin decent peoples lives? You’ll no doubt walk away with millions while you ruin the company my family has served for 100 years.”

In contrast the GMB has presented British Gas engineers not as fighters for the interests of the entire working class, but as supplicants who had to throw themselves at the mercy of the CEO, the company boardroom and even the Conservative government. Their efforts have centred on a letter writing campaign to O’Shea and shareholders. An appeal by GMB General Secretary Justin Bowden to high profile investors stated, “We believe that we have a joint interest in persuading Centrica’s senior management from changing its current course, before more damage is done to the company (and, consequently, the value of your investment)…”

This is the real constituency of the GMB, which it vows at every opportunity to protect from the independent demands of the working class.

The company can rely on the fact that the union would rather see hundreds of its members dismissed and thousands having to accept the inferior terms than organise a broader mobilisation against the fire and rehire scheme. It has also been able to count on the other British Gas trade unions, such as Unison, Unite and Prospect, which accepted the company’s modernisation programme—hiking up productivity and axing 5,000 jobs.

The GMB has not even shrunk from presenting Prime Minister Boris Johnson as an opponent of fire and rehire contracts. His hypocritical criticism of the policy as “unacceptable” is positively referenced in the GMB video, “The story so far”, in the section, “Support flooding in”. Labour MP’s have likewise been allowed to line up and pay lip service to solidarity with the strike at British Gas.

The allies of British Gas workers are not to be found in this political alignment of hostile class forces. The trade unions and Labour Party have functioned as the essential prop of the Johnson government, which has been given free rein for its herd immunity agenda in which no loss of life from the pandemic is considered too high in the interests of prioritising profits.

In addition to the sacrifice of key workers on the frontline and enforcing a return to work in which workers lives are not lawfully protected, the Labour Party and trade unions’ subordination of the working class to the corporate and financial oligarchy is facilitating a wave of restructuring to preserve and boost the enrichment of a parasitic super-rich elite.

The end of what Johnson has proclaimed “the last lockdown” will guarantee a new wave of death and is geared toward an intensification of the exploitation of the working class. Since last March, one in 10 workers have been forced to reapply for their jobs on worse terms and conditions.

British Gas workers must turn for support to other sections of workers entering struggle—bus workers on strike at Go North West against fire and rehire contracts and RATP over zero-hour contracts and inferior terms for new starters; NHS workers against the derisory one percent pay offer; and teachers against the unsafe reopening of schools.

The mobilisation and unification of the working class can only be taken forward based on the establishment of a network of rank-and-file committees—independent of the trade unions—which will oppose the sacrifice of workers’ lives and livelihoods in the interest of the profit motive, and fight for the reorganisation of the economy based on a socialist programme.

This perspective will be discussed in a Socialist Equality Party online public meeting this Saturday calling for the formation of a network of rank-and-file action committees. We urge British Gas workers to register today.