Union warns Openreach that engineers are ready to vote for industrial action over new grading structure

BT-owned broadband plumbing biz says it's 'surprised and saddened'

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has told Openreach it is to ballot members on industrial action following what it claims is the company's decision to ignore consultation and instead hire engineers on a different grade and structure.

The specific area of Openreach that CWU said is the subject of an "ongoing dispute" is Repayments Projects, a unit tasked with diverting already laid copper wires and fibre cables for new developments including HS2, a high-speed rail line linking up London, the Midlands, the North, and Scotland.

Sources within BT's subsidiary told us management didn't follow the process agreed with the union and decided that new entrants will be hired on a "manager's grade". Counterintuitively, our sources claimed, this equates to worse terms and conditions, including pay, sick pay, overtime, and holiday.

In a video message to members late last week, Davie Bowman, assistant secretary at the union, said BT is attempting to "change the role of the team structure" despite the heavy "engineering content...of the work."

"We sought to try and reach an agreement with the company... but unfortunately Openreach have decided to appoint people into the role on an unagreed grade and unagreed structure, and that left us in a position where we had no option but to serve formal notice on the company today for a ballot for industrial action," he said.

In the previous consultative ballot last year, there was a 92 per cent turnout of members and 90 per cent voted in favour of "strike action" so members have "made it clear they are unhappy with what the company is doing." Obviously the CWU wants to see a similar turnout at the next ballot box.

In a statement sent to The Reg, Openreach told us it was "surprised and saddened by the news, having worked closely with the Union for more than a year and a half to try and resolve the specific issue.

"None of the 170 Repayments Project Engineers in question is at risk of losing their job or seeing any deterioration in their pay, terms and conditions. In fact we've offered them all a better-paid, higher grade role within Openreach and we've given a cast-iron guarantee that they can stay on their existing terms and conditions – including an extremely competitive salary of around £45,000 a year – if they choose to."

Repayments is an expanding part of the business, BT said. "We recently advertised roles at the new grade internally for promotion, we received hundreds of applications from other engineers."

Openreach said it wants to "reassure customers that this potential action won't impact the quality of the services we provide, or affect our large ongoing investment in recruitment, training and a new Full Fibre broadband network in the UK."

BT embarked on a widescale cost-cutting programme in 2018 designed to save it $1.5bn a year in overheads. The axe is falling on 90 per cent of its real estate – 270 offices were to shut over five years from June 2019 including its HQ and some 13,000 staff out of 106,000 were also to be expunged.

Over in the Technology division, the CWU last year lobbed a consultative ballot to staff to ascertain the appetite for industrial action and 84 per cent of unionised members voted in favour. ®

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