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BT union wants pay dispute talks with telco's largest shareholders

The game of corporate poker continues but CWU may find investors more interested in dividends

The union representing BT Group workers protesting over their latest pay award are trying to pull as many levers as possible to force further negotiations, including setting up meetings with the telco's biggest investors.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) previously told BT that the strike action on July 29 and August 1 should serve as a wake-up call to the senior management team, but has so far stopped short of announcing more dates.

Instead it is urging both unionized engineers working for BT subsidiary Openreach and call center operators in dispute with the company to write to their local Member of Parliament to inform them of the recent turn of events.

Some BT employees have already done so and Dave Ward, general secretary at the CWU, said in an email to members: "We have had some excellent replies and this is shining the spotlight on the company."

The public clash over pay began in March when the union rejected a flat pay award of £1,200 ($1,450) for 58,000 frontline workers. At the time, the CWU said BT must prioritize "shareholders or workers." BT upped this to £1,500 ($1,813) and included it in employees' April pay packet without consulting the union.

In another move designed to intensify pressure on BT, Ward added it was also "setting up a meeting with major shareholders of BT Group to present our case for the pay rise you've earned and deserve."

The Reg asked Andy Kerr, CWU deputy secretary for technology and financial services, which institutional investors the union has approached and how it hopes to convince them to back their cause but he has yet to reply.

Shareholders want to see returns on their investment but whether they can be convinced by the union's arguments for a bigger pay award to staff is a moot point. Funds aren't typically known for having a big heart.

The single largest BT shareholder is Patrick Drahi's Altice UK investment vehicle – it owns an 18 percent stake. That stake is currently being assessed for national security purposes.

T-Mobile Holdings owns 12 percent of BT and BNP Paribas SA holds 7.52 percent.

The union is also planning to run adverts in national papers. "If BT Group do not respond positively, we will announce further action – expect further communications from us by the end of the week," Ward told members.

BT has already said it will not reopen negotiations with the CWU over its request to give those 58,000 staff a 10 percent pay increase. BT told us previously the £1,500 pay award equated to a 5-8 percent rise for the lowest paid workers, which was the biggest percentage increase in years. It also pointed to the capital expenditure of building next-generation networks.

For its part, the CWU has shone a light on the 32 percent higher pay package CEO Philip Jansen received this year (£3.2 million or around $3.87 million), the £1.3 billion ($1.57 billion) profits BT banked in fiscal 2022, and rapidly rising inflation in Britain.

Some 26,000 BT Group staff – 21,000 at Openreach and almost 5,000 in the call center – downed tools on July 29 and August 1 in protest, although BT told The Reg last week that it was well prepared and claimed it didn't feel the impact.

"We have tried and tested processes for large-scale colleague absences to minimize any disruption for our customers. We kept the network running safely and effectively, as we do every day, and there were no national incidents or outages.

"We're continuing to assess the impact but our focus is firmly on serving customers and getting back to business as usual."

This game of corporate poker is far from over. ®

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