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On eve of national industrial ballot, BT, EE, Openreach agree to temporarily suspend compulsory redundancies

Well, the telco always said it's good to talk: Negotiations over jobs, pay, grading, and more set for this month

Exclusive BT has halted all compulsory redundancies on the eve of a national ballot for strike action across the group, the telco and union CWU today confirmed. It follows 15 days of strikes waged by a small band of engineers in Openreach.

The unrest was caused by BT's multi-year programme to save £1.5bn in annual operating costs, started in 2018. This involves reducing the workforce by 13,000 and closing 90 per cent of corporate real estate.

The CWU decided in March to hold a UK-wide industrial ballot to test the appetite among unionised workers at BT – and its sub-groups EE and Openreach – to down tools. This would have been the first such action since 1987 and came after CWU said it was unable to resolve disputes with the company.

Separately, Openreach repayment project engineers (RPEs), whose job it is to move existing BT infrastructure to make way for new builds, voted to strike earlier this year and so far have set up pickets outside BT offices on 15 days in February, March and April under the Count Me In campaign. The frustration was over a change in the grade for new RPEs.

However, BT has agreed on a moratorium to "try and make progress on the wide range of issues affecting your future," the CWU told its members at BT this morning, in a communication seen by The Reg.

The missive continued:

Although BT initially refused to engage meaningfully, the Count Me In campaign has created leverage and BT has now agreed to suspend all redundancies whilst we continue to discuss and try to find a way forward, this has been given on the condition that we postpone our industrial action ballot during the ongoing talks. The exact details of the suspension of the redundancies, are:

  • No compulsory redundancies
  • No further team members will be put at risk of compulsory redundancy
  • Stop any further announcements of building closures or transformation changes that could lead to potential redundancies
  • No-one is detrimentally impacted as a result of the suspension of redundancy
  • A commitment to meaningful intervention to resolve the ongoing RPE dispute

The CWU described this as a "significant move" which "has been reached through your campaigning efforts and has put pressure on the company to listen to CWU members. Collectively the CWU has forced BT to shift its position and engage with us following our consultative ballot and we have now pushed them further to call a pause to redundancy on the eve of our industrial action ballot."

Over the course of the next three weeks, the union says it will try to make progress on the redundancy process; strategic resourcing; better workplaces; Ts&Cs; job evaluation and grading; and pay.

"We have made it clear to BT that if we are not able to make the necessary progress over the next few weeks, we fully intend to go ahead with our industrial action ballot at the beginning of June 2021," the CWU added.

BT drafted the cost-cutting proposals in 2018 under previous CEO Gavin Patterson, who was recently linked with the ill-fated European Super League. His successor, Philip Jansen, picked up the ball and ran with it. In addition to its networks backbone, BT is trying to transform its organisation to sell more tech and data services, and created a Digital wing in January, run by the ex-CIO at HSBC, Harmeen Mehta.

The top line has been shrinking since 2017, coming in last year at £22.905bn, and pre-tax profit has fallen since fiscal 2016. The share price is currently down 63.6 per cent from the end of 2015.

BT is scheduled to report its latest quarterly financials tomorrow morning.

A company spokesperson sent us a statement noting the CWU's intention to ballot members for industrial action: "Discussions have been ongoing about a range of topics over the past few months. Both BT and the CWU believe that continuing to talk is the best way to resolve our points of difference.

"So, during May, the CWU has agreed to pause the ballot for industrial action and BT has agreed to suspend any actions that could result in potential Team Member redundancies while these important topics are worked through." ®

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