THE privately owned corporation British Gas is pressing ahead with a scandalous scheme to sack its gas engineers who have put up a sustained resistance to a forced 15 per cent pay cut and radical changes to their terms and conditions.
Last month these engineers were given a noon deadline to sign up to new conditions or face sacking.
The reaction of the workers and their union GMB was to take strike action, and the workers have engaged in an eyecatching and innovative propaganda campaign that puts the pressure on the company boss now nicknamed “No Way O’Shea.”
The language deployed by the employer is very revealing. Behind the bland words: “We must change to protect 20,000 UK jobs. There is a job for everyone at the end of this process and our new terms are fair and very competitive” lies the company creed that to protect profits workers must take the hit.
The company blurb continues: “We know this is difficult but we have a responsibility to reverse our decline which has seen us lose over three million customers, cut over 15,000 jobs and seen profits halved over the last 10 years.”
But the reality is somewhat different. Parent company Centrica said that its 2020 profits would be higher than expected as it cut costs and enjoyed a strong performance from its trading business.
Just three months ago it was reported that shares in Centrica rose about 3 per cent in morning trading, despite a warning that it remained cautious about the outlook for this year because of the impact of tighter Covid-19 restrictions.
Not that Centrica is without deep pockets. Less than a year ago the company boss Chris O’Shea told shareholders that operating profit was down 14 per cent, or £56 million, compared with the year before.
Just do the maths to see how big a cash pile it has.
These are the actions of a corporate boss class encouraged by the power that ownership, wealth and a notoriously “worker-hostile” legal system allows.
How “British” Gas came into being is a textbook case in state-sanctioned robbery which put publicly owned assets and a vital utility into the hands of corporate owners.
Post-war rationalisation created a unified gas utility and the network of local gas boards into the British Gas Corporation.
Margaret Thatcher’s Gas Act in 1986 saw the enterprise flogged off to private investors.
The new entity, Centrica, has a chequered history of ambitious and opportunistic mergers and acquisitions in which the interplay of financial institutions, venture capitalist and foreign holdings has turned this vastly expanded business into an international conglomerate driven by the urgent demands of shareholders for ever-greater dividends.
While Centrica has become a diversified energy business with big interests in electricity supply, the pandemic has reduced demand for gas and put pressure on the company’s balance sheet and this is just one of the factors driving the bid to enhance profits at the expense of the workers whose labour is the foundation of the business’s viability.
British Gas engineers deserve every support in their fight. This is just one of the many battles workers face when the normal cycle of capitalist instability throws businesses into crisis.
It raises the urgent question that the labour movement is compelled eventually to face.
The only way to end this endless struggle is to constrict a society in which utilities and enterprises are held in common where the satisfaction of human needs and the reproduction of human life becomes our collective goal.
For countless millions, job security in work of productive and socially useful labour cannot be delivered by capitalism. With the working class in power it can.
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