By a CWU member
The productivity bonus scheme for BT Customer Service engineers, "Self Motivated Teams", has been rejected by members of the Communication Workers Union three times this year - at a Special Conference of activists in January, in a consultative ballot of engineers affected in February, and in the mandate given to the Executive in the ballot to take industrial action against SMT in April. When strike action was derailed by management's use of the the anti-union laws, the union has lost ground on the issue among the members.
Strike action would have been solid in the vast majority of areas, with even the minority of members who were taking part in the voluntary SMT scheme prepared to come out on strike. Unfortunately the situation now is less clear-cut. A deliberate delay of information from CWU Head Office since the calling off of the ballot, and a lack of a subsequent strategy to fight SMT, have given members the impression that the union is not prepared to confront the employer on the issue. Indeed, in May the Executive entered talks with the company and has been issuing joint statements with management on the issue. So much for union democracy.
But the SMT issue is just one of a number of potential conflicts between BT and the CWU: BT want to move thousands of jobs to India; in the BT spin-off, O2, management want to impose a longer working week, worse conditions around sick pay and holidays, and a pay freeze for the coming year.
It is no accident that since the industrial action ballot was called and Jeannie Drake, the union's chief negotiator with BT, has taken control of the overall running of negotiations, the SMT issue has been put on the back burner. There has been an attempt to portray CS engineers rejecting SMT (remember, it was endorsed by the Telecoms Executive with only one vote against!) as perverse, and a suggestion that SMT is a side issue for the union.
It is not! Those involved in the dispute cover nearly 40% of the engineering membership. The majority of engineers have rejected the SMT scheme, even though many could earn money from it, because some engineers have a reasonable class-conscious scepticism toward productivity bonus schemes. They see them as inherently divisive and unfair. SMT keys into already existing grievances over unfair work allocation and working practices. When money was not a factor this was an irritant, but put money in the equation and there is a sense of injustice.
Another factor is the distrust of management in Customer Service - the most performance-target obsessed and bullying management in BT. Many members feel the introduction of SMT will make it worse. These are important issues for the whole of the union and shouldn't be dismissed in favour of keeping in with the company.
In the run up to CWU Conference (held earlier this month), the Executive agreed to approach the employer to "talk about talks" on a team based alternative to SMT. A week later Drake called a forum of branches on the issue. At that forum many branches expressed surprise that the Executive had agreed to talk while the current unagreed SMT scheme was still in operation. In the run up to the industrial action ballot the Executive's bottom line was that action would go ahead if BT did not withdraw the unagreed scheme.
The overall situation now is that the (majority) of members who did not sign up to the unagreed scheme, thereby forfeiting additional payments, are now left high and dry. Their colleagues are continuing to earn money from the scheme, ignoring union advice, and their union leaders are now talking about bringing in "son of SMT".
Management's figures estimate a third of the workforce are receiving some sort of bonus, which is an exaggeration but it is clear that a significant minority of the workforce (20-25%) are currently involved in the unagreed scheme. Such divisiveness does not bode well for the future. There are already anecdotal reports of fights, broken friendships and bitterness in Customer Service teams.
At CWU Conference activists were expecting the Executive to report on negotiations and to seek democratic endorsement of their negotiating stance on "alternative" incentive arrangements. No motion was submitted. Instead a brief report was made to Conference at the request of branches. The only chance Conference had of formally affecting the Executive's course was to support the South East London Branch and Central London Branch submitted Emergency motion. This motion called for the Executive to stop talking about productivity bonus schemes in whatever form and instead to begin talks on the upgrading of Customer Service engineers.
Unfortunately this motion was portrayed as a "no talking - strike now" motion and was defeated. The issue of upgrading, however, was elsewhere on the agenda as an ordinary motion. This time, despite opposition from the top table, this motion was carried.
The key issue now is for the claim for upgrading to become a part of the current discussions. A Branch Forum is to be called in July to report on the progress of talks. Activists should be prepared to insist that the members have the right to be consulted on any new scheme, that any watered down version of SMT is rejected and that the union fight for proper pay increases for Customer Service engineers.