|Volume 51 Number 1, January 16, 2021||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Workers employed by Britain's largest energy supplier British Gas, owned by the monopoly Centrica, held a five-day national strike from Thursday, January 7 to Monday, January 11 over the company's "fire and rehire" plans. Pickets, although limited due to coronavirus restrictions, were held across the country, particularly in Lancashire.
Centrica is trying to block the workers even from being able to negotiate or strike. It is trying to find a tactic whereby they are forced to accept. In so doing, those in control are upsetting the basic norms of established employment relations.
Further, whether the company forced a strike, and so is to blame, or not, the issue is being made that to strike is not in the public interest. There is supposed to be some conflict between the interests of these workers and the interests of the public.
The issue is rather that those in control are motivated by narrow private interests. The supply of gas and the maintenance of heating is essential, a necessity, especially during this particular winter. But the provision of those services is divided into competing private businesses, including large monopolies like Centrica. This fierce competition is causing this situation. Meanwhile, heating has to be provided by necessity, and the workers who deliver that service have a claim by right on the product of their work. They are creating a great deal of value into the economy in doing that work: that needs to be paid for and workers have their claim on that value.
Yet, because of this division into private interests, workers are being forced to cut their claim and compromise over their conditions of work. How can any of that be in the public interest? By defending themselves, workers are ultimately defending the public interest. Implicit in this struggle, then, is that workers are opposing the defining of the public interest by those in control.
It was in December that 89% of over 9,000 British Gas members of the GMB union voted to strike. Those involved included gas service and repair engineers, central heating installers, electrical engineers and smart meter engineers, along with call centre workers. Exceptions were made to cover emergencies and repairs for breakdowns affecting vulnerable people.
The dispute began in spring last year following Centrica's announcement of a so-called £1 billion loss in March, after which CEO Iain Conn was sacked, replaced by interim CEO Chris O'Shea, who announced the loss of 5,000 jobs. Under conditions of fierce competition, British Gas has been losing customers. According to Ofgem statistics, its market share has dropped from 25% in 2013 to less than 19% at present.
Nevertheless, the GMB pointed out in a recent press release that the strike action was provoked "against the backdrop of the company reporting operating profits of £901m in the latest available annual accounts [published in July] ... And Centrica declared an adjusted operating profit of £229 million for its domestic heating business in the UK for the six months to 30 June 2020 - up 27 per cent on the same period in the previous year."
Regardless, Centrica in July threatened 20,000 workers to accept new contracts, or be terminated and rehired so as to impose new terms, including a reported pay cut for gas service and repair engineers of up to 10%.
Angry at the ultimatum, 95% of members voted for action in August, a move which, by October, had forced a delay. "We sought to get the threat off the table," said Justin Bowden, GMB National Secretary. "The best that they were prepared to do was postpone the ultimatum until January." It was this continued refusal to drop its "fire and rehire" threat that led to December's ballot for the present strike action.
Centrica, putting its private monopoly interest in first place, is accusing its workers of standing in the way of modernising.
"To win back customers from our competitors and reverse the decline of our business we must have flexibility to give customers what they want, at a price they want and when they need it," a Centrica spokesperson said. "Our current terms and conditions are stopping us doing this and modernising the way we work is critical to our success."
Those in control are defining what they mean by modernising. But how can what they are saying actually be a modern way of doing things?
"British Gas boss Chris O'Shea's attempts to bully workers into accepting cuts to their pay and terms and conditions has provoked this inevitable outcome," said GMB, bringing "massive disruption to customers in the depths of winter and a stain on the reputation of an historic company and brand."
What Centrica are trying to do is to say that workers need to get behind them and make concessions, and moreover, are trying to impose those concessions. There is no negotiation. Instead, they are tearing up the relations and disrupting everything. The workers, then, are quite right to point to the company's bullying tactics. The workers demand their role in decision-making, and reject arbitrary control.
The owners in control and the workers stand in relation to each other, and those in control would have this relation be one of absolute control. They want their workers to be what they call flexible, meaning that they want the flexibility to hire and fire workers at will, to change their terms and conditions at will, to reduce claim of the workers on the value they produce at will. In this way, the relation of being the owner becomes one of imposing their private will. Turning truth on its head, they portray any resistance to that as disruptive.
Centrica risk igniting an explosion! They are conscious of this, calling their plans to fire and rehire workers a "last resort". Even chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, Darren Jones, expressed his concern about what he called an "extreme measure".
Workers will not stand for this, and that is why so many voted for strike action. They refuse to be treated as a so-called human resource on the one hand and a cost on the other. It is not a confrontation they wanted, but it is the company that ruptured relations; striking was a "last resort" from the workers' perspective. But workers accepted their stand as necessary faced with the attitude and response of Centrica. There should be no sackings, conditions should not be arbitrarily determined by the company, and there should be no imposition of new contracts without discussion. The workers know that in the end, it is matter of who is in control and who decides.
"A profitable British Gas provoked their loyal staff into strike action in the depths of winter by refusing to heed their overwhelming rejection of the fire and rehire pay cuts," said Justin Bowden. "British Gas should recognise that the only way to end the disruption they provoked is to take fire and rehire pay cuts off the table."
For their part, the company have so far ignored the strike action, and as a result, workers have announced five further days of strike action, spread over Wednesday, January 20, to Monday, February 1, and have launched a national strike fund. The struggle is a matter of importance for all workers.