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3 is the magic number? Openreach repayment project engineers add extra consecutive strike dates

18 months of dispute over new grading structure and counting...

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is trying to crank up the pressure on Openreach top brass ahead of next week's planned strike action by adding three more days to the protest campaign.

Repayment project engineers (RPEs) are scheduled to down tools for around 48 hours from 24 February over a change of the grading structure that will reduce the salary, holiday entitlement, and other Ts&Cs for new starters.

A formal ballot of the 170-strong team was held in January and 120 of the 143 that showed up voted for industrial action. The CWU was today warning of a three additional consecutive strike days from 3 March.

Organising these extra days follows "inflammatory and disingenuous management efforts" designed to divide and conquer the disaffected engineers by inviting them to individual and roundtable talks to resolve the dispute, said the union.

Davie Bowman, CWU national officer for Openreach, said BT's response to the strike vote was "absolutely incredible".

"Along with all the previous meetings/calls and emails, it seems incredible this is the only approach being adopted by Openreach to resolve this dispute."

He accused the company of a "blatant attempt to divide a very strong and committed group of members".

Openreach has told some unionised workers, according to Davie, that they could "work undercover by not signing on" during the initial planned strike dates. "This is not just disingenuous but also outside any of the duty of care processes that exist, and in the past had landed members of the CWU in serious trouble – some losing employment – so why would that be acceptable now."

Davie added: "It's absolutely incredible and hard to believe that, after months of discussions, a thumping consultative ballot result and then a statutory ballot that absolutely smashes every hurdle in our way, the company claims to still be 'not quite sure' what the dispute is about."

RPEs, who divert existing copper and fibre cables to make way for new projects including HS2 and Battersea Power Station, are angered by the introduction of a grading system under which new engineers start on the lowest rung of the managerial level. They feel the value of the role is being diminished by Openreach.

Julia Upton, CWU chair of the Openreach national team, said: "This is probably the most selfless dispute you could imagine because it's not about individuals wanting something for themselves. Essentially it's about the future of their role going forward, them wanting to do the right thing by customers and their concern for Openreach's reputation."

We have asked Openreach to comment and have yet to hear back, but it sent us this statement about the dispute previously.

"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 the option to upgrade to the better-paid higher 'Technical Professional' grade, but we've also given a cast-iron guarantee that they can choose to stay on their existing terms and conditions – which includes an extremely competitive salary of around £45,000 a year. The new grade enables them to remain at this salary plus participate in an incremental bonus scheme.

"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 action won't impact the quality of the service we provide, or affect our large ongoing investments in recruitment, training and a new Full Fibre broadband network for the UK." ®

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