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BT accused of 'misinformation' campaign ahead of strikes

Union tells members to hold nerve on eve of first nationwide sit down in 35 years

BT stands accused of running a "misinformation" campaign against unionized staff at its Openreach subsidiary as tens of thousands of network engineers prepare to go on their first national strike since 1987.

The industrial action is due to start tomorrow and run again on August 1 in protest over pay award in April, and the Communication Workers Union is encouraging members to hold their nerve.

Andy Kerr, deputy general secretary for the CWU's telecoms and financial services membership, said in a message to unionized staff at Britain's national telco:

"Currently, there are many rumors and pieces of misinformation circulating around BT and Openreach. These anti-strike myths are being circulated by Team Leaders and Line Managers who will be under instruction from Senior BT bosses to do so."

He reminded BT workers that they do not need to inform their line manager of their intention to strike, do not need to divulge how they voted in the ballot of industrial action, cannot be sacked for lawful strike action and they can down tools even if they aren't a member of the CWU.

Further, he said apprentices and trainees can strike, a Newgrid grade cannot be changed after an employee goes on strike and employees can still protest if they work from home.

"Make no mistake, these cynical tactics are a concerted and planned effort to weaken your resolve and break your strike," said Kerr.

The industrial action follows a dispute between BT and the CWU over the imposition of a flat £1,500 ($1,825) pay rise paid to 58,000 frontline workers in April. BT initially offered £1,200 ($1,460) before increasing it.

The CWU has repeatedly said the pay award was an effective pay cut, given that UK inflation is already at 9.4 percent and is expected to rise to more than 11 percent this year.

The union highlighted that BT made £1.3 billion ($1.582 billion) net profit in the year ended 31 March 2022, and that BT CEO Philip Jansen got a 32 percent pay rise to £3.2 million ($3.89 million), while BT CFO Simon Loweth received a 25 percent rise to £2.2 million ($2.68 million).

BT, the CWU claimed, refused to re-enter negotiations about pay and so members were balloted for industrial action. The June ballot saw 74.78 percent of 30,000 Openreach staff turn out, and of these 95.6 percent opted to strike. Some 60 percent of 9,000 BT call center workers also showed up, with 91.5 percent of those voting to strike.

BT previously told us it had been involved in "exhaustive discussions" with the CWU over the annual rise but went ahead and paid staff when it became apparent an accord would not be reached. It also said it would not re-open the 2022 pay review as it balances investments in a cap-ex intensive industry.

We asked BT to comment about the claims from the CWU, and a spokesperson sent us this statement:

"While we're disappointed that the CWU has decided to take industrial action, we respect the decision by their members to take industrial action. We are complying with all legal requirements throughout the industrial action process. We have a responsibility to all of our colleagues, including the many thousands who won't be taking part in industrial action, and to our customers."

They added: "We will work to minimize any disruption and keep our customers and the country connected. We have tried and tested processes for large scale colleague absences to minimize any disruption for our customers and these were proved during the pandemic.

"BT Group awarded a fully consolidated pay increase to its Team Member and frontline colleagues of £1,500. This represents a pay rise of around 5 percent on average and 8 percent for the lowest paid and it was effective from 1 April 2022. This is the highest pay award BT Group has made in over 20 years.”

Industry experts previously told The Reg it will be hard for BT to entirely cover for strike action of this magnitude and there will inevitably be delays to new service provisions.

"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," said Mark Jackson, editor-in-chief at ISP Review.

Paolo Pescatore, analyst at PP Foresight, told us last month BT would be prioritizing repairs and maintenance during any strike action. "This is set to be the summer of discontent for BT." ®

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