BT's emergency call handlers will join pay strikes

Four fresh dates organized for industrial action as union puts the squeeze on biz

Tens of thousands of BT Group engineers and call center workers, including those who handle emergency calls, are scheduled to go on strike for a total of four days next month in a long-running pay dispute.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) is ramping up pressure on senior management at BT, Britain's largest telecoms business and a former state monopoly. Unionized employees downed tools for two days in July and another two in August, but are set to double the dates in October.

Other CWU activities have included contacting BT's largest shareholders to press for higher pay awards for staff and plans to run national newspaper ads to embarrass BT into returning to the negotiating table. Left-wing group Enough is Enough has thrown its support behind the campaign.

Some 26,000 BT workers – Openreach engineers – and call center staff have been on strike.

"This dispute is modern Britain in a nutshell: lives are at risk because a company's top brass won't listen to workers," said CWU general secretary Dave Ward.

He said the decision to add further strike dates was "not taken lightly, but our union's repeated attempts to initiative discussions was declined by a management who clearly believe they are above negotiating a fair deal for people who make massive profits for them."

In a statement to members, the CWU said:

"The decision has been taken to withdraw all emergency cover, including 999 operators and those workers that support 999, including Relay UK. We are not making exemptions for any members to work during this round of industrial action, this will include call-outs.

"Whilst this is an extremely difficult decision to make; these are some of the lowest paid workers in the company, and they too are being undervalued by BT's refusal to move on their position."

The dispute concerns the imposition of a £1,500 pay award by BT in April on 58,000 frontline workers, without consulting the CWU. The CWU wants a higher award to reflect the rise in inflation, the profits BT makes, and CEO Philip Jansen receiving a 30 percent-plus pay hike in 2022 to £3.2 million ($3.87 million).

For its part, BT said the pay award offered was the highest in decades, and it pointed out the huge costs of building next-generation networks that it will need to partly shoulder.

In June, The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people, wrote that BT staff had set up a food bank in the northeast of England. BT said this was more of a convenience for time-pressured employees that couldn't get to the supermarket.

Ward at the CWU leapt on this, adding: "999 operators are using food banks, they're worried about the bills and are being stretched to the limit.

"It is no surprise that the goodwill of the workers has run dry, and that services will now be hampered."

As can be expected, BT has downplayed the impact of the previous strikes in July and August, and the CWU has talked them up.

A BT spokesperson told The Register: "We know that our colleagues are dealing with the impacts of high inflation and, whilst we respect the right of colleagues to take industrial action, we are profoundly disappointed that the CWU is prepared to take this reckless course of action by including 999 services in strikes.

"We will do whatever it takes to protect 999 services – redeploying our people to the most important priority is a normal part of BT Group operations.

"We made the best pay award we could in April and we have held discussions with the CWU to find a way forward from here. In the meantime, we will continue to work to minimise any disruption and keep our customers and the country connected." ®

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