Today, British Gas workers are concluding a five-day strike over pay and conditions. But energy company bosses are refusing to back down. The labour movement must demand nationalisation of the Big Six.

Today, British Gas workers are concluding a five-day strike over pay and conditions. But energy company bosses are refusing to back down. The labour movement must demand nationalisation of the Big Six.

Workers at British Gas have recently undertaken strike action, from 7-11 January. The five-day strike – organised by the GMB union – had a landslide 89% ‘Yes’ vote in the ballot, with a 59% turnout amongst 9,000 members nationally.

This is a resounding call for action, showing the determined mood amongst the workers, and giving the union a great chance of victory going forwards.

Nevertheless, despite this strong strike, the bosses are digging their heels in. The stage is set for a further showdown. Further action will therefore be needed to force management into a retreat.

Bullying tactics

The recent British Gas strike involved around 4,500 service and repair gas engineers, 600 central heating installers, 540 electrical engineers, 170 specialist gas engineers, and 1,700 smart-metering engineers.

These workers have endured a bullying set of negotiations with British Gas CEO Chris O’Shea, who has tried to intimidate them with ‘fire and rehire’ threats.

Workers originally faced a 20% cut to their pay and conditions. This is despite reported operating profits of £901 million by British Gas parent company, Centrica. Following a battle with GMB negotiators, this was reduced to a 10% pay cut.

At this point the tone of negotiations changed, with management adopting a ‘take it or face the sack’ position. A deadline of 23 December was presented to the union, with officials expected to force a miserable deal upon members.

“His idea of compromise – to reduce a 20% cut in pay down to 10%, and then lambast and attack the shop stewards for not selling his proposals,” stated GMB national secretary Justin Bowden, “has been overwhelmingly rejected by the gas, electrical and smart-meter engineers”.

For fighting leadership

Ruthless bosses have therefore provoked a strike in the coldest part of the year – amidst a pandemic and a national lockdown! The responsibility for the stoppage lies entirely with them.

Why should British Gas workers accept a penny less from their pay, while the bosses and shareholders see huge profits?

Last month, British Gas narrowly avoided strike action by 7,000 frontline office workers. In the end, these workers – represented by Unison – accepted management’s offer.

But rather than providing evidence that this is a ‘fair deal’, as the bosses will claim, the acceptance of this deal actually points to the pressure that ordinary workers are under to hold onto their jobs at any cost.

Against a backdrop of economic crisis and mass redundancies, bad deals can get forced through. This is especially the case in the absence of fighting leadership in the unions. Only organisation and militant action can guarantee workers a decent future.

The GMB’s decision to limit picketing due to the coronavirus is a regrettable but correct one. But new conditions call for new solutions.

Striking workers will therefore have to find new means to win solidarity and to demonstrate their strength – for example, taking a leaf out of the teachers’ book, where the NEU have organised mass online rallies and petitions to win support for their struggle against the Tories.

Nationalise the Big Six

Ultimately, this situation is yet another clear sign that the market is failing in the energy industry, and across the whole economy. This is the case both for workers and customers.

3,000 people die every year as a direct result of fuel poverty. And this was the case even before the pandemic reared its head, forcing people into hibernation in shoddy, poorly-insulated accommodation.

“Workers have been laid off, furloughed, or are working from home, increasing domestic energy use,” acknowledged Ofgem, the government’s energy watchdog, earlier this winter. “Some customers are struggling to pay their bills. These impacts could increase over winter, as consumers use more energy.”

That some customers are ‘struggling to pay’ is an understatement!

Ofgem has predicted that energy companies will try and claw back lost profits by hiking up prices for millions of people.

This begs the question: If companies like British Gas – the UK’s biggest provider – can neither pay their workers a decent wage, nor provide affordable energy, then what are they good for?

These energy monopolies should be nationalised immediately – under workers’ control, and without compensation.

We say:

  • No to pay cuts for British Gas workers! Open up the books for British Gas and Centrica!
  • Forward to a rolling strike to make the bosses back down! For solidarity across the labour movement, in support of striking workers!
  • Nationalise British Gas under workers’ control! Nationalise the Big Six energy companies as part of a socialist planned economy!