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£1,500 bonus to thank BT staff for their work during pandemic branded by union as a 'bribe' to vote against strike

It must be a coincidence

BT has decided to dangle a one-time pandemic bonus under the noses of tens of thousands of workers as it stares down the barrel of potential industrial action.

The UK telco said it has proposed to offer 59,000 of its frontline and key workers the reward. This bonus, BT said, equates to 5 per cent of average pay and would be structured as £1,000 in cash and £500 in shares that would vest after three years.

CEO Philip Jansen, said: “Our frontline colleagues and key workers have been true heroes, keeping everyone connected in this most difficult time."

The move has come at a turbulent time for BT, which faces the prospect of its first national strike in 37 years. The Communications Workers Union, which represents some 45,000 BT Group workers, has said it plans to hold a ballot on whether to walk out over BT's transformation plans.

In 2018, BT said it intends to drastically reduce its real estate footprint from 300 locations to just 30, with its St Paul's HQ among the planned culls. At the same time, BT said it will make 13,000 staff redundant. Those remaining may face the possibility of longer commutes, or the need to relocate.

Adding salt to the wound, BT said in October that it intends to cap redundancy payments to a maximum of 12 months of salary, representing a 50 per cent reduction from the previous standard of 24 months, according to union Prospect.

In a statement today, the Communication Workers Union blasted the proposed payout as a "bribe to not vote for strike action." Andy Kerr, CWU deputy general secretary, said: "Undoubtedly, BT have made this move because of our members' support for the CWU. What is vital now is that we redouble our efforts to win the Industrial Action Ballot and deliver an agreement on job security... [BT] are trying to divide the workforce and ignore the voice of members, so they can plough on with their job cuts and race to the bottom on pay, terms, and conditions."

The last time BT faced a national strike was in 1987, some three years after it was semi-privatised by the government. Around 117,000 engineers walked out after the company rejected a demand to reinstate 700 who were fired over a separate dispute over pay and conditions.

Workers were similarly unhappy with a proposed 5 per cent to 5.8 per cent pay rise, which was under the 10 per cent demanded by the National Communications Union, and came with additional conditions that would lead to longer working hours.

The work stoppages, which lasted for two weeks, had a dramatic impact on BT's ability to function, with some exchanges taken offline, and others operating at a greatly reduced capacity. Telephone and telex equipment was left unmaintained, and according to one report from Anglia News, some members of the public experienced difficulties placing calls to 999.

According to Mike Bett, the company's managing director of operations at the time, more than 6,000 man-years were lost. This had a long-term affect on the company, with Oftel's* annual report for 1987 [PDF] noting longer wait times for new connections, a deterioration in quality of service, and an increase in customer complaints.

BT eventually came to an agreement with the aggrieved workers by offering a pay rise of 12.75 per cent over two years. This, according to Bett, came at the expense of overtime and new recruitment.

As the Beatles once sung, money can't buy you love. But can it avert a potentially crippling strike action? ®

*The precursor to Ofcom

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