Last week, on 15 April, engineers stood defiant on the picket line as British Gas bosses pressed ahead with firing them. This mass sacking came about because the workers refused to be bullied into accepting a 15% pay cut, along with other changes to their contract that would have seen them working harder for less money.
This has led to the spectacle of dozens of British Gas vans being taken from their former occupants and parked up, lying idle for want of workers to drive them. These scenes have been described as “graveyards” by the strikers.
Up until this point, the engineers – organised by the GMB union – had been on strike for 42 days. They have fought like lions against the imposition of this brutal new contract. Even on their very last day, the determination to carry on the struggle was as strong as ever.
Some of the workers have been with the company for over 30 years. This includes Debbie Tinsley – the first woman to work as an engineer for British Gas (see below).
None of this matters to chief executive Chris O’Shea or the rest of the bosses. The only thing they care about is their profit margins. They have no qualms about destroying a whole swathe of skilled jobs in order to boost profits.
So by this time tomorrow I along with many others will be fired by British Gas. What have we done wrong? Absolutely nothing, we just didn't agree to their new contract that would make us work longer hours for less pay. 30 years of loyal service counts for nothing. 🥲 #britishgas pic.twitter.com/iULn3FZvvF— Debbie Tinsley (@buddy49561367) April 13, 2021
Race to the bottom
The battle at British Gas is perhaps the most dramatic example of ‘fire and rehire’ so far. But it is far from the only one. Many employers have used the pandemic as an excuse to force workers to accept cuts to their pay and conditions: from British Airways, to private bus companies, to London-based tech firm Goodlord.
Many of these companies have in fact found the pandemic very profitable indeed. British Gas themselves, for example, recorded a profit of £80 million in their latest financial statement.
Indeed, financial reports indicate that of the 13 private employers who’ve been at the centre of fire-and-rehire disputes over the last year, nine also reported healthy profit levels.
At the end of the day, however, capitalist competition inevitably means a race to the bottom. Once one company finds a way to squeeze a few extra figures onto its profit margins, others will follow suit, in order to remain ahead of competitors.
Making a healthy profit isn’t enough for these people – they have to make more and more, or find themselves pushed out of the market. And at the end of the day, it is workers who ultimately pay the price.
Organise and mobilise
The tactic of fire and rehire must be consigned to the dustbin. And these attacks can be defeated.
To do this, however, united action is needed. If the whole of the trade union and Labour movement had mobilised behind the British Gas workers’ struggle – offering solidarity through a mass campaign of protests and support for strikers – then this latest fire-and-rehire example could have been defeated.
It is still not too late to rise to the challenge. Workers in other unions – such as Unite and Unison – are also facing similarly brutal fire-and-rehire tactics. And further attacks are coming. The labour movement must be ready to meet these head on.
Isolated and atomised, workers and workplaces can be picked off by unscrupulous bosses. But unionised, organised, and mobilised – with the whole movement solidly behind them – workers can fightback and be victorious.
What is needed is fighting leadership across the labour movement. The TUC and trade union leaders must organise and arm the movement with a programme of action. This means waging a united and militant struggle, involving protests, strikes, and occupations.
If the bosses say they cannot afford to maintain (or improve) existing jobs, wages, and conditions, then workers must demand that they open up the books to the labour movement.
As highlighted above, most of the companies deploying these barbaric fire-and-rehire methods have in fact profited handsomely from the pandemic. We say: make the bosses pay for this crisis!
Solidarity action should be undertaken in support of any workers facing cuts. An injury to one is an injury to all. If this means breaking the anti-trade union laws, then so be it. Organised and mobilised, the working class can smash through these laws – and all the other repressive legislation that the Tories are attempting to bring in.
On the political front, the Labour Party must throw their weight behind these struggles, organising a mass campaign against fire and rehire, against the Tory anti-union laws, and in defence of workers’ wages, conditions, and jobs.
Ultimately, however, the problem is not just ruthless bosses, but the ruthless logic of the capitalist system. This is why Labour and the unions must fight for a socialist plan of production, with nationalisation of the key levers of the economy, under workers’ control and management.
Only by abolishing the profit system and transforming society along socialist lines can we put an end to the bosses’ attacks for good. This is the vision that the leaders of the labour movement must fight for.