170 BT Repayment engineers who work for BT Openreach have taken 15 days of strike action against management’s regrading plans for their group. Negotiations are happening this week with BT on the issues of concern including future grading and promotion opportunities.
These negotiations are taking place against the background of a potential CWU company wide ballot on job cuts in BT group, i.e. BT, Openreach and EE. The largest number of job cuts has been announced in Openreach. Those are a result of management plans for site closures (mainly in London and the South East) and a significant reduction of the number of the higher grade technical jobs. The scale of these job cuts cannot be managed by voluntary redundancy schemes and redeployment as previously.
CWU branches have been asked to update their records to comply with legal requirements of industrial action ballots. It’s a complex task as the majority of employees work out and about and reorganisations of staffing are constant. BT has used the anti union laws on balloting before to stop action in Openreach. They sought and were successful in seeking injunctions based on apparent lack of compliance from the CWU on members’ (and non-members’!) locations of work in a previous dispute on productivity bonuses in the 2000s.
The “Count Me In” campaign against the job cuts has been running for the past few months with social media promotion and political support from local Labour MPs and councillors. This puts pressure on the employer and also raises the profile of Union demands amongst the membership. That is a good thing. However CWU activists are concerned that we are running to catch up.
The principle of opposition to any compulsory redundancies in BT, which is Union policy, was breached at the end of 2019 in certain small BT divisions, and the Telecoms Executive did not respond. Indeed when the major job cuts in Openreach were announced in 2020, the Executive still failed to act. It attempted to encourage the company to be flexible on voluntary redundancy when this clearly was not going to deal with the issue.
Even at the end of 2020, when it was clear that the redundancies had to be resisted, rather than accommodated, the Executive only called a consultative ballot. An overwhelmingly positive result on this was announced in December. Now, with the Executive dragging things out, the earliest we can get a ballot result to take industrial action will be June.
The current telecoms Executive, lead by Andy Kerr as Deputy General Secretary for the Telecoms sector, has pursued a “company union” approach to industrial relations for over a decade. That road has now run out. BT has promised all non management grades a one off £1000 bonus and £500 in share options. This will not appease people.
We work in a growing and profitable industrial sector and we are an overwhelmingly unionised workforce. The time for a fightback is now. How this dispute pans out will be an important indicator of whether organised parts of the labour movement are prepared to fight for job security in a post pandemic economy.