Fire and Re-hire: why trade union leadership will matter

By Paul Holmes

The bosses have an old maxim – ‘Don’t waste a good crisis’ – and they aren’t going to this time. The Government’s mishandling of the last 12 months has to be paid for.

Statistics already show that 9% of workers have had their terms/conditions cut in the last 12 months (rising to 18% for workers under 25). All of this as we wait to see what stores closed during lockdown will re-open and furloughed workers wait to see if they will ever return to work.

For those returning to work, employers will be looking to re-coup losses and extract more profit. In addition, public services, especially local government, face huge cuts in their budgets. In the last period two councils – Northamptonshire and Croydon – have effectively gone bankrupt. 10-20 other councils are now set to follow suit.

But the employers must make profits and some services must be provided. There is no room for sentimentality in the bosses’ world: the sacrifices workers made in the Covid crisis are irrelevant. A public sector pay freeze awaits us, with small offers for the heroic NHS staff.

How will employers cut workers’ existing terms/conditions? Their ‘vehicle of choice’ will be the tactic of ‘Fire and Re-hire’. How does this tactic work? Basically, 12 weeks’ notice is issued. If you haven’t accepted the new terms and conditions within 12 weeks you are considered to have made yourself redundant without redundancy pay. This is the option that will face millions of workers as employers seek to cut workers’ terms/conditions.

We have seen this tactic used at Tower Hamlets Council, British Airways, British Gas, Go North West buses and others, as bosses seek to maximise profits or run services with less money. The price is to be paid by workers. Only organised industrial action can defeat it.

‘Fire and Re-hire’ has many advantages for employers. It is fairly quick, effective and can affect thousands of workers at once. But it also gives trade unions a chance to build for industrial action.

‘Fire and Rehire’ is a method of redistributing wealth – upwards. As the USA miners’ leader Big Bill Haywood said 100 years ago, “When someone receives a dollar they didn’t earn, someone else doesn’t get a dollar they did earn.”

The year-long miners’ strike in Britain in 1926 rallied around the slogan of ‘Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay’ as coal bosses sought to cut earnings and extend the working day. That is exactly the dispute that the GMB are fighting currently at British Gas as the employer seeks to reduce overtime rates and extend the working day.

Douwe Egberts are a Dutch coffee firm employing 300 people at a factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire. During the Covid crisis of the last 12 months, Douwe Egberts have seen sales rise by 41% and profits by 9%. Yet they are still seeking to ‘not waste a crisis’ by using ‘Fire and Re-hire’ tactics on the workforce and reduce their workers’ terms and conditions and remove their ‘defined benefits’ pension scheme. The workforce there have voted over 90% for industrial action in a consultative ballot. That is the way to respond to such proposals.

The bosses’ slogan for workers at present is that ‘workers are lucky to have a job’. Workers know instinctively that it is the bosses who are lucky to have the well-paid jobs they have!

Some union leaders want to continue with business as usual but that won’t be an option because the employers don’t want to do that. If a trade union leader wants to defend their members’ terms and conditions, they are going to have to organise resistance. There will only be two options – organise and fight or capitulate. In the 1890s, the Tory Party leader in the Commons, Arthur Balfour, was asked, “Is there a class war going on?” He responded, “Yes, but there’s only one side fighting at the moment”. Over the next period trade union members are going to need a fighting leadership worthy of their members.

The employers are going to be looking for massive cuts in workers’ pay and conditions – ‘Fire and Re-hire’ tactics will form the bulwark of those attacks. It is the role of leaders to be ‘dealers in hope’. We need to mount a campaign among our members to win these battles.

We will not win those battles with routinism. We will win them with a leadership that gives a fighting lead – a lead that organises our members and uses all the resources of the unions (the members, money, buildings, staff, social media, experience, etc.) for the real assets that we should be seeking to protect: the wages, terms/conditions and pensions of our members. That is what the union is for. It’s a working class organisation organising for the benefit of working class people.

Let’s fight ‘Fire and Re-hire’ proposals. Some union leaders think we talk too much about the past. But the reason we talk about the past is to learn lessons from it and because that’s where the bosses want to take us back to.


Paul Holmes (@Paul4NEC) is a UNISON NEC member, writing in a personal capacity.

Paul Holmes is standing with other #TimeForRealChange candidates in the UNISON NEC elections from 4th -27 May 2021.


Regional NEC seats
Eastern Liz Brennan, Rob Turner, Polly Smith
East Midlands Nathalie Birkett, Sara Evans
Greater London Helen Davies, Liz Wheatley, Amerit Rait, Anju Paul
Northern Cathy Davis, Terry McPartlan
Northern Ireland Niall McCarroll
North West
Tony Wilson, Karen Reissman, Jane Wilcox, Steve North, Luisete Batiste
Scotland Arthur Nicoll, Maggie McGuire, Lynn-Marie O’Hara
South East Jacqui Berry, Antoinette Solera, Dan Sartin, Abi Holdsworth
South West Becky Brookman, Kevin Treweeks, Jessica Powell
Wales Libby Nolan, Martin Chapman
West Midlands Caroline Johnson, Alison Dingle, Mike Vaughan, Mandy Buckley
Yorks & Humberside Greta Holmes, Sarah Littlewood, Tony Wright, Theresa Rollinson

Service Group NEC seats
Community Kevin Jackson, Saoirse Fanning
Health Claire Dixon, Su Edwards, Joe Hale, Kevin Corran
Higher Education Sandy Nicoll, Kath Owen
Local Govt Diana Leach, Jane Doolan, Paul Holmes, Andrea Egan
Police & Justice Mike Garvey, Joanne Moorcroft
WET John Jones

National NEC seats
Black members’ Nimi Trivedi, Julia Mwaluke
Young members’ Lilly Boulby, Kiera Hilder

 Image: Part of the UNISON contingent at the 2016 Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Rally; Author: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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