Union tells BT: Commit to pay rise talks next week or else

First nationwide strikes since 1987 edging closer, warns CWU

Exclusive BT has until the middle of next week to confirm it will enter formal talks about employee pay rises or face the prospect of tens of thousands of unionized workers going out on the first nationwide strike since 1987.

This is according to an email to members from the CWU, the communications union, and follows last week's ballot in which employees at BT - the UK largest network provider - and Openreach, it's network cabling installation unit, voted overwhelmingly in favor of industrial action.

The CWU confirmed at the end of June that 74.78 percent of 30,000 Openreach staff had turned out to to cast their decision, and 95.6 percent of these voted to strike. Some 58.2 percent of 9,000 call center staff also voted, and of these 91.5 percent were in favor.

"Congratulations on delivering last week's outstanding national strike ballot results," said the CWU in the email sent to members yesterday that was seen by The Register.

The dispute is centered on an annual pay rise: BT awarded 58,000 frontline engineers and call center staff a flat rate rise of £1,500 for 2022 at the start of April, without the CWU's agreement. This was up from the £1,200 BT initially proposed. With inflation reaching 11.7 percent in the UK in June, this is a pay cut in real terms, the union said.

The CWU pointed out that BT made £1.3 billion in annual net profit for the year ended March 31. This was down 13 percent year-on-year. The union also highlighted CEO Philip Jansen's £3.5 million pay package, itself up 32 percent.

The union said in the mail to members that it had written to Jansen following the ballot result, "setting out our approach to any further negotiations."

"We have committed to talks with the company but only if they are willing to improve their offer, agree to no further imposition on pay and agree that it would be subject to a CWU consultative ballot of all affected members."

Management at BT Group have until July 13 to respond. "We clearly hope BT Group see sense and the ballot result wakes them up but we have to be prepared to use the ballot result."

A branch forum of BT union reps will meet on the 13th to discuss possible dates of the "first Group wide strike action since 1987." It added: "In short, next week we will either enter into serious negotiations with the company or we will announce strike action. The ball is firmly in the company's court."

Following the ballot results, a BT spokesperson last week told us the April payment to frontline workers equated to a 5-8 percent hike for "those on the lowest salaries."

They also pointed out "we're in there middle of a once-in-a-generation investment program to upgrade the country's broadband and mobile networks." BT, it should be stated, is getting tax breaks to help it fund this revamp.

"Our job is to balance the competing demands of BT Group's stakeholders and that requires careful management, especially in a challenging economic environment," the BT spokesperson added.

"The result of the ballot is a disappointment but we will work to keep our customers and the country connected."

We have asked BT Group to comment on the latest development.

Paolo Pescatore, analyst at PP Foresight, told us that with the continued "concern" over the ownership of BT, "this is the last thing that Jansen needed." He added: "This is set to be a summer of discontent for BT".

"The cost-of-living crisis is having a profound impact on all companies; no one is immune. This will cause a domino effect and inevitably have a knock-on effect on all of BT's operations. This includes the rollout of fiber broadband which is set to be negatively impacted due to Brexit, attracting the right talent and the supply chain disruption."

Should the strikes go ahead, Pescatore said BT could mitigate some impact by slowing the rollout of next-generation networks to "prioritize any repairs and maintaining services." Should industrial action be protracted, BT may also decide to outsource some functions "where feasible."

No commercial broadband or mobile operator could "completely cover for strike action of this scale and magnitude" Mark Jackson, networks expert and editor-in-chief at ISPReview UK told The Reg.

"The impact is thus likely to be similar to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, before sophisticated home working systems were introduced."

Getting support from BT is expected to become harder, if industrial action goes ahead, and delays to new service provisions will "strike Openreach", Jackson added.

"The latter will stretch from consumer broadband to high capacity Ethernet lines, etc. Openreach have said that they've put dedicated business continuity and resilience teams in place for just such an eventuality, but we'd expect this to focus on key management, network repairs and upkeep work.

"So, your internet connectivity and phone services should keep working, but don't be surprised if that new fibre (FTTC or FTTP) connection you had booked in to be installed gets delayed or faces a longer lead time than usual when you try to arrange it. Naturally, the length and breadth of this impact will depend upon the CWU," he added. ®

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