In December, BT Group workers in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) voted by a 97.9% majority for industrial action to defend job security and conditions, in a consultative ballot. A BT Group worker and CWU activist explains the background to the dispute and other struggles in BT.
The national consultative ballot against job cuts and compulsory redundancies across BT is the logical result of the failure of industrial leadership by the CWU Telecoms Executive for over a decade, and also of the disastrous outcome of the 2019 general election for communication workers.
The current faction in control of the CWU Telecoms Executive — the inappropriately-named “Left Activist Network” (LAN) — is the product of an acrimonious split in the previous CWU Broad Left. Since LAN’s victory in the CWU Deputy General Secretary Telecoms election in 2008, and subsequent control of all the main negotiating committees, we have seen a series of compromises on national agreements that have just got worse and worse for CWU members in BT.
• Five years added to all non-management BT employees’ age of retirement (from 60 to 65), then increases in employee contributions, and then the ending of the benefit rates of the final-salary pension scheme for the approximately 50% of the workforce still in it
• A few years later, the acceptance of a two-tier workforce in Openreach, with new recruits working longer hours and with different arrangements on pay progression, finishing and travel time, etc.
• Failure to maintain equal terms and conditions across all the divisions in BT Group in newly acquired firms such as EE
• Failure to oppose the sell off of subsidiaries such as BT Fleet.
Back in 2019, it became clear that BT management had our national agreement on no compulsory redundancies in its sights. Previously, changes in the structuring of jobs have been dealt with by redeployment and voluntary redundancy. Having met no union resistance to compulsory job cuts announced in the small division of BT Enterprise that year, a massive site closure and job cuts program was announced in the major Openreach division in early 2020.
Thousands of jobs are now under threat throughout the UK, and the scale of the cuts makes it inevitable that, if the bosses get their way, many will be made compulsorily redundant. Rather than call an industrial action ballot, the CWU Telecoms Executive dithered for most of the year and only called a consultative ballot in November. This had an overwhelmingly positive result, announced just before Christmas. The big question now is when, or whether, a formal national industrial action ballot — the only way to stop management’s plans — will be called.
BT bosses are emboldened by the Tory victory in the 2019 general election. Not only because they can be sure of government support in taking on unionised workers, but because the job cuts announced show that they have no intention of delivering a network for the future. They are sticking with a policy of creating profits by cost-cutting and outsourcing rather than developing services for the UK.
The job cuts in Openreach are mainly of higher-paid technical workers — those that are needed to plan and deliver superfast broadband access and 5G in a future-proofed way. The rejection of Labour’s manifesto plans for free broadband for all and a publicly-owned Openreach in the 2019 election means we will see a continuation of the competitive market model of regulation that leads to a race to the bottom on workers’ terms and conditions in the telecoms sector.