The first round of the strike, organised by the GMB trade union, ran 7-11 January and started in response to an attempt by British Gas to implement pay cuts by using a fire-and-rehire plan, part of which the employer can force employees to agree to a new contract. However, employers could risk legal action if this is not done fairly, in a timely fashion, or legally.

As part of the protest, members of the GMB union have been mounting socially distanced picket lines across the UK.

In the meantime, a video of British Gas managing director Mathew Bateman leaked on social media. The video, from an internal British Gas meeting, shows Bateman discussing the advantageous time of the strike, as catastrophes such as the Covid-19 crisis and the US presidential transition are ‘taking headline space’ from the industrial action.

This has also built up anger and increased pressure on the company from customers and members of the public who are questioning its actions.

How the conflict unfolded

According to GMB, the decision to start the industrial action was reached after 89% of the trade union’s 9,000 British Gas members voted in favour of it last month. This followed the attempt by the owner of British Gas, Centrica, to cut some salaries by up to 10%, and unsuccessful talks with British Gas’ executives.

The union has also accused Centrica of initiating the change of contracts and “bullying” its 20,000 employees to accept poorer employment conditions or be fired as part of the new plan.

GMB national secretary Justin Bowden said: “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.  They have now ignored a five-day demonstration by the engineers that the proposals are not acceptable.

“They are forcing further disruption on their customers all the way into next month because of the new strike dates. 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.”

GMB has also spoken about engineers filling reports of bullying and intimidation by British Gas management during the first strike via a reporting helpline launched by GMB.

The announcement of the new strike days coincides with the launch a national strike fund, with an appeal to branches and members of GMB and trade union bodies.

The GMB Central Executive Council launched the appeal with a sum of £250,000 into the fund.

Starting last week, GMB has been leading a social media campaign called #StopTheBritishGasFire to attract support for the strike.

Hazel Nolan, GMB Scotland senior organiser for commercial services, said on Wednesday that Centrica’s executives had created their own crisis by exploiting workers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“While GMB members in British Gas acted as emergency workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chris O’Shea and the senior millionaires team of British Gas were busy plotting how to slash workers terms and conditions.

“In the grip of a global pandemic, Chris O’Shea’s anti-worker, ‘fire and rehire’ agenda would set a dangerous precedent for major UK employers, opening the floodgates for widespread attacks on workers’ jobs, pay, and conditions. This is not how a country builds back better,” Nolan said.

When it comes to other work condition changes, Jake O’Malley, GMB regional organiser for the gas industry told local media Leeds Live: “They’re wanting to introduce allocated time slots and if they don’t complete the work in that time, they’ll be penalised.

“It’s awful. These guys have worked through the pandemic, they’ve gone into homes of people who’ve tested positive for the virus and they went around driving food for the Trussel Trust to make sure the vulnerable in the community got what they needed.”

While more than 7,500 staff could walk out, Centrica said that GMB has committed to ensure emergency callouts were not affected, explaining that it has contractors that it could approach.

Centrica’s response to the industrial action

As part of Centrica’s statement, a company spokesperson said: “We’ve done everything we can with the GMB to avoid industrial action. Whilst we’ve made great progress with our other unions, sadly the GMB leadership seems intent on causing disruption to customers during the coldest time of the year, amid a global health crisis and in the middle of a national lockdown.”

The company also pointed out that “only 52% of the eligible GMB membership has voted to support strike action”, disagreeing with GMB’s reported figures.

“This is a very weak mandate – it is clear the GMB leadership does not have popular support across their membership for this course of action,” the statement goes.

The firm also said that 83% of its employees have already accepted the employee changes to terms and conditions, including the majority of engineers, but a minority continue to refuse “reasonable asks to work an extra 3 hours per week (on top of 37 hours) in line with the rest of their colleagues, and to start their working day in the customer’s home, rather than in their own home”.

The spokesperson continued: “This shows most of our people understand that our business needs to change because customer needs are changing. GMB’s mandate for strike action is weak; they are fighting against modernisation and changes which will help to protect well-paid jobs in the long term and are doing so at a time that our country needs everyone to pull together.

“We’re not reducing base pay and the GMB have themselves stated that our engineers are the best paid and protected workers in the gas industry – averaging £50k a year.” Centrica also explained that GMB has helped shape the proposal over 300 hours of negotiations – and this must be its final offer.

“Unfortunately, the GMB did a u-turn at the last minute to recommend members reject the same proposals that they helped to shape. We are concerned about some misinformation that has been shared with GMB members about the deal,” the spokesperson concluded.

In June 2020, Centrica said it planned to dismiss around 5,000 workers to “arrest the decline” of the company. It now maintains the position that it has “lost too many customers and too many jobs in recent years”.