The Communications Workers Union’s (CWU’s) ballot for industrial action in the telecoms sector is currently paused. The CWU previously stated its intention to ballot all its members who work for BT group (BT, EE and Openreach) in response to job cuts and site closures and the breaking of long standing agreements with the union. At the heart of the dispute is whether the company’s future strategy will include job security and consultation with the union or not.
BT group remains a highly profitable firm in a growing sector. Employees have the right to expect job security and assurances about the future. National negotiations to avoid an industrial action ballot are ongoing, with a deadline for report backs from negotiators later in June.
BT group has high union density, higher than most other parts of the telecoms sector. What is at stake for the CWU is not whether they are prepared to fight back to defend members’ interests in BT but whether they are prepared to fight at all. There will be no hope of extending the union into unorganised companies and gaining more members if the union does not deliver in the areas where it is organised.
Currently the Telecoms section of the CWU is under the leadership of the “Left Activist Network”, a breakaway from the previous Broad Left. They have total dominance of all executive positions and have had for over a decade. Andy Kerr, as the lead negotiator for the CWU on telecoms, and Davie Bowman, as the officer for Openreach, have been key architects of the conciliatory “company union” approach during this time. This has seen two deals to reduce pension entitlements and the introduction of worse terms and conditions for new Openreach recruits.
BT has recently concluded a deal on BT Sport with broadcasters. It has also been successful in the auction for spectrum access, and there has been a big shake up in the Executive Board. Perhaps most importantly, in the last couple of months BT has been promised an extra £3 billion to spend on upgrading broadband access across the country. That makes it £15 billion in total from the government.
This extra funding has become available, and is being used by BT, because the Chancellor announced more money for capital investment in the Budget with an accompanying reduction in corporation tax as an incentive. More direct labour jobs should be the prize for the union, but the cost cutting agenda of BT management stands in the way.
One of the best kept secrets of the trade union movement, only partially revealed in the 2019 Labour Manifesto, is the official CWU policy for the renationalisation of the telecoms industry. This has never been a priority for the current leadership.
Living through the pandemic has laid bare the need for public investment, ownership and democratic control of telecoms and IT technologies. Telecoms is an essential service for all.
Though the Labour Manifesto 2019 headlined on the retail offer of free broadband, this can only be delivered through greater public control and public ownership of the industry. Neither is on the cards with this Conservative Government. The reform of Ofcom regulation to increase access and deal with the “digital divide” is unlikely, public ownership even less so.
Nevertheless the CWU needs to make the case for public ownership and democratic control as a key platform of its political campaigning.