Openreach engineers vote to strike amid changes to job grading structure

Overwhelming majority stand up to down tools, BT has days to meet with Communication Workers Union

The clock is ticking for BT top brass to meet with the Communications Workers Union (CWU) after repayment project engineers (RPE) in the Openreach division voted for industrial action over a new grading structure.

As revealed in January, 170 engineers in the unit were balloted over what they saw as BT's decision to put new hires on a management grade without correct consultation. The revamped Ts&Cs equate to lower salaries and fewer holidays, our sources have said.

The results of the formal ballot was out late last week: around 86 per cent of around 140 RPEs that turned out voted for industrial action.

The CWU said: "This is an absolutely fantastic turnout and once again clearly shows the strength of feeling felt regarding the imposed changes."

"This is about the role now and in the future, for you and those who carry out the work going forward," added the union. "Openreach must now reflect on this outcome and return to the negotiating table with a genuine desire to resolve this dispute by reaching an agreement that ensure the RPE role remains a team member grade."

"In the absence of a commitment to move forward on that basis then the appropriate notice and strike action will take place. We have written to the company seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the outcome of the ballot."

Unionised workers at BT told us the company has a deadline of Wednesday, 10 February, to meet with the CWU, "after which strike dates and type of action will be set," said one.

In response, Openreach reissued the same statement it dispatched to us last month when the CWU threatened to formally ballot members – Openreach said its position has not changed in the interim.

"We're surprised and saddened by the news, having worked closely with the Union for more than a year and a half to try and resolve this 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.

"This is an area of the business where we're growing and when we recently advertised roles at the new grade internally for promotion, we received hundreds of applications from other engineers.

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

RPEs operate in a relatively small area of BT: the team is tasked with diverting existing copper or fibre cables to make way for fresh property developments, including the excavations in Euston, London, for high-speed rail project HS2. But there is conflict across the business, if the CWU and fellow union Prospect are to be believed.

BT is in the throes of a multi-year "transformation" programme that includes laying off 13,000 staff and closing 90 per cent of its real estate with the London HQ thrown in for good measure.

Given the scale and pace of change, disputes that have arisen range from a proposed two-year cap on redundancy payments, to BT nearshoring its procurement function to Ireland, along with other implications for the rights of workers who find alternative roles in BT when their previous position is made redundant.

Openreach, the pipes and plumbing division of BT, was "legally" separated from the formerly state-owned telco in 2017. ®

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