The last five days have witnessed socially distanced picket lines across the UK and a wave of social media solidarity in support of the 7,000 gas engineers and call centre workers compelled to strike against the unacceptable, repugnant, and Victorian era employment practices of the UK’s biggest gas company.
Despite months of negotiations with the GMB union representing ninety percent of the engineers Centrica, which owns British Gas, has refused to withdraw its cost reducing plan of firing all its staff and then rehiring some of them but on reduced terms and conditions which undermine the living standards of the workers while improving the profits, dividends, and salary packages of the fat-cat bosses. It is a deplorable plan and the workers had to fight it.
In September 1999 former New Labour Prime Minister and renowned war criminal Tony Blair made his landmark speech to the Labour Party conference during which he announced “the class war is over”. It was a stupid and inaccurate statement designed to cover his merging with Tory politics of fictitious centrism which in reality means kowtowing to the whims and demands of big business, supporting a profit first and foremost approach to politics, and the belief that trade unions should be tolerated in the margins but never seen or heard. It wasn’t centrism, it was true blue Toryism and New Labour was subsumed by that philosophy. Not a single anti-trade union law was repealed and rogue employers and tax avoiding billionaires like Philip Green were knighted instead of being hunted during New Labour’s thirteen years in power. There was time to launch illegal wars, end free education, and deregulate the financial industry to facilitate obscene profiteering and greed but no time for worker’s rights.
Gas Workers Strike is Proof that Class War is Still Alive and Kicking
The five-day strike amongst British Gas engineers proves conclusively that far from being ‘over’ the class war is alive and kicking, and industrial actions like this will be become much more common as workers who have suffered real living standards reductions over the last decade are compelled to fight against greedy bosses and a cruel Tory government. I remember posing the question during a speech in the Scottish Parliament against the New Labour/Liberal coalition budget which imposed severe cuts on local authorities across Scotland in 2002 ‘if the class war really is over, then who won’? The class war will never be over while the vast wealth and resources in society are owned and controlled by a tiny minority at the top instead of collectively by the majority.
How dare a company which boasted about profits of £901 million during the full financial year to 2018 on its own website devise a cost-cutting plan which targets the contracts of its longstanding employees and seeks to fire them and rehire on inferior terms and conditions. They have the audacity to suggest thousands of workers should voluntarily agree to give up long established contracts in favour of new terms which involve working more hours for less money. This is the suggestion from the new chief executive Chris O’Shea as he sets about making the company more profitable for its hungry shareholders.
Bosses on Almost £1 Million a Year – Workers to Accept Wage Cuts
Mr O’Shea was appointed to the top job in April last year based on his financial management and accounting skills, not his knowledge of gas engineering and the work these workers do on a daily basis to ensure customers have a safe and regular supply of gas to their homes. Working during all hours and often in cramped conditions and inclement weather the gas engineers are offered less attractive employment contracts in the best interests of the company. I wonder how many would prefer the package Mr O’Shea was offered? His basic salary before bonuses and other additions is £775,000 a year with a huge pension guaranteed. His predecessor Iain Conn was paid £953,000 last year but decided to retire early. If you ever hear a spineless reporter suggest workers are just greedy during strike actions, please remember these figures. Greed is involved in industrial disputes but always on the side of the bosses.
The union made sure that arrangements were in place to ensure that emergencies and problems for households with vulnerable people would be dealt with. British Gas owner Centrica claimed that pay cuts were needed to “protect jobs” and that it had done “everything” it could to avoid industrial action. But the union urged members of the public to ask why a company whose UK domestic-heating arm alone made an operating profit of £229m in the first six months of last year — up 27 per cent on 2019 — should be trying to force through pay cuts “in the depths of winter.” Chief Executive O’Shea’s basic pay is over 20 times greater than the basic earnings of an experienced British Gas engineer, but it is they who should accept pay cuts and inferior employment contracts for the good of the company! That is the ‘class war’ defined. Pay cuts for the workers but massive salaries for the bosses.
Win This Battle First Then Demand Gas is Returned to Public Ownership
British Airways tried to introduce a similar fire and rehire cost cutting scheme but were forced to abandon it in the face of employee resistance. Centrica must also be forced to abandon their plan. An injury to one is an injury to all is a well-known trade union principle and it is entirely applicable here. If Centrica get away with such a dastardly fire and rehire scheme to cut wages and boost profits, then other big companies will rush to implement such strategies. Not only the GMB but the whole trade union movement must resist such shady and shoddy employment practices.
Of course, the very fact that supplies and maintenance of such an essential commodity as gas is in private hands at all is a scandal. Gas, electricity, water, oil, transport, telecommunications, and financial services are all essential in a civilised society. They should be collectively owned and controlled for the benefit of all of society, not in the hands of fat-cat bosses and city spivs determined to run them into the ground to extract as much profit as possible at any cost. Centrica bosses must be defeated in their backward plan to drive wages and conditions down for the benefit of bosses and shareholders, but the bigger battle must be mounted also to take gas, electricity, water, and other essential industries back into public ownership and control where they belong.
Support the gas workers fight as further industrial action looks inevitable if they are to defeat the greedy bosses https://www.gmb.org.uk/campaign/back-british-gas-workers#sign