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United front by CWU as industrial relations outlook darkens in BT

Unprecedented threats to job security and hard won terms and conditions across BT Group must be met with a steely and united show of resistance, branches representing members across the company have agreed.

With BT poised to embark on the widest-ranging transformation programme in its history – and the union already grappling with a growing list of potential flashpoints including, most immediately, the spectre of compulsory redundancies in the troubled Enterprise division – the CWU has resolved to prepare for battle in case negotiations fail to secure an acceptable way forward.

Amongst the many other vexed issues facing the CWU at a time when technological advance, including the march of artificial intelligence, is predicted to render the telecommunications industry virtually unrecognisable by the end of the decade are:

  • The ‘Better Workplace’ site rationalisation programme, under which BT aims to concentrate its UK workforce into just 29 or 30 major locations nationwide over the next four years – a move which, if realised in its entirety, will result in the mass displacement of staff and a redeployment challenge on a scale that has never been seen before

  • BT Group’s shock decision at the end of last month to attack redundancy and paid leaver terms by serving notice on the 2018 Pension Agreement – a development made all the more provocative by the timing of the announcement which fell on the eve of the first ever compulsory redundancy of a team member grade employee

  • The associated need to negotiate a new legally binding agreement on pensions – without which BT could, in theory, unilaterally walk away from the 2018 agreement with just 60 days notice once the notice period it has just invoked expires in a year’s time.

  • Unagreed changes to terms and conditions for new starters that have led to the lodging of a formal disagreement with BT Consumer

  • A myriad of grading and pay point disagreements across BT Group – with an especially large number of unresolved cases in Openreach

Addressing a specially convened online forum of all branches with members in BT on Tuesday, deputy general secretary Andy Kerr made no bones about the scale of the threat posed to members across the whole of BT Group.

With more CWU members in Enterprise facing compulsory redundancy in the coming months – and fears that hundreds of team member grade employees in Technology could potentially be left ‘stranded’ with no obvious redeployment avenues under that division’s own site rationalisation ambitions – Andy stressed that the wider ‘Better Workplace Programme’ is poised to make an already vexed situation exponentially worse.

So far, Technology is the only BT line of business to definitively declare its Better Workplace endgame. That involves the consolidation of nearly 400 sites into six ‘UK Hubs’ and seven ‘Specialist Buildings’ concentrating on a single function. Chillingly, while the division’s 8,000 impacted employees (including managers) are currently based all over the UK, including Scotland, the northernmost ‘Hub’ that management is currently proposing on the mainland is in Manchester, the southernmost in London and the westernmost in Bristol.

“There’s no doubt that the Better Workplace Programme is the single biggest issue facing us all,” Andy told the 100-plus reps participating in Tuesday’s video conference.

“So far we’ve only had indications from Enterprise and Technology as to where they are going. In the next few weeks we should be clearer about Openreach’s thinking but we still have no idea where Consumer is going on this – and we can’t second guess the overall scale of the challenge the Better Workplace Programme will throw up until we have visibility of all the pieces of the jigsaw.

“The trouble is that there isn’t, it appears, a BT Group-wide master plan, apart from the aspiration to move to 29 or 30 major locations. Different lines of business seem to be doing their own thing, which raises huge questions over the redeployment opportunities that will be available for the large numbers of individuals who will be displaced by lines of business that are withdrawing from particular areas.

“Even where places have already been named as ‘major locations’ it would be premature to say that everyone working in those places will be secure, because the jobs and CFUs that are there today won’t necessarily be the same jobs and CFUs that will be there tomorrow – and the implications of that are truly massive.

Andy Kerr

“The truth is that there is absolutely no chance of BT being able to carry out the Better Workplace Programme without the threat of compulsory redundancies – even more so given the apparent lack of co-ordination by different lines of business.”

Andy stressed it is essential that branches and members understand that the seismic changes that are underway in BT have potential ramifications for job security across-the-board. He insisted there’s no place for complacency, even a line of business like Openreach which is currently still expanding employment numbers and recruiting heavily to meet challenging targets surrounding the national rollout of high speed broadband.

Pointing out that once the current Fibre Build programme peaks in around five years time, not only will the current massive investment start to tail off, but the number of engineers required to service a much more resilient fibre network will begin to diminish.

“To date there’s certainly been a view taken by some people that compulsory redundancies in Enterprise have nothing to do with them because they aren’t affected and will be okay. Those people urgently now need to think again – because with the Better Workplace Programme, and the other changes underway at BT, the uncomfortable truth is that every branch in the country will soon be affected by issues that challenge long-held assumptions on job security,” he cautioned.

“This really is an issue that could potentially affect anyone anywhere.”

Twin-track union response

Following detailed debate as to how the CWU should respond to the unprecedented, multi-layered and inter-related challenges emerging in BT, the union’s BT committee has agreed to a twin-track approach, under which talks will take place with the company in an attempt to defuse the biggest threat to decades of industrial peace since privatisation.

Simultaneously, however, the union will be launching a campaign to explain to members what is at stake – and the reasons why the CWU needs to be ready to stand firm in defence of job security if agreement cannot be reached on an acceptable way forward that meets the needs of both the business and employees.

Andy explains: “We will try to negotiate a way through the issues that are affecting us – our members would expect nothing less– but people need to understand that these talks will not be easy or straightforward by any stretch of the imagination.

“We’ve already given the company every opportunity to see sense and change its position on the compulsory redundancies taking place in Enterprise – time and again proving that the surplus could be addressed in a different way, and saving a significant number of job in the process – but at this point in time they are not responding in the right manner.

“This is the start of a journey for us, and now is the time for us to have an open and honest discussion with each other,” Andy concludes.

“I need to be clear to everyone that if we get to a position where the talks fail, and there’s no way through to an agreement with the company, we will have no option but to ballot for industrial action.”

Forum soundbites…

Bill Dixon, South London, Surrey & North Hampshire Branch:

“Some people in some parts of BT don’t know what’s happening, but others absolutely do know because their jobs are on the line. We need to move forward and we need to move forward united.”

Simon Edwards, Mid Wales, the Marches & North Staffs Branch:

“BT’s record over the last 12 months has been one of disengagement with us. We’ve seen BTFS, BT Fleet and we’ve had a registered disagreement on compulsory redundancy. We’ve got more and more managers in HR, ER and senior roles who’ve never worked with unions before and seemingly don’t want to start now. The Better Workplace programme is a big issue for our branch as Technology has announced that Oswestry is not one of the future sites. There’s going to be huge tranches of the country that will lose good employment.”

Will Murray, Greater London Combined:

“BT has manoeuvred us past our red line which was industrial action after a single compulsory redundancy. From their perspective they’ve played a good strategic game, but we need to stand firm.”

Jacqui Stewart, Lancs & Cumbria Branch:

“Like other companies BT is clearly taking advantage of the Covid situation and is outsourcing more work than ever. They’re sneaking work into southern Ireland in Consumer, and there are indications they’re going to put more work out to India. I think we need to start shaming BT, because we’re going to have high unemployment in the UK and we need these jobs here.”

Tony Gilkes, Capital Branch:

“We’ve got to stick together. Technology’s the only line of business to have really declared on the Better Workplace Programme so far, but that’s going to be a huge issue, because when they devoid areas (of work) there won’t be other jobs opening up in other lines of business.”

Chris Power, South East Central Branch:

“At the moment my branch has had one member go on compulsory redundancy from Enterprise. There are six more scheduled to go at the end of August, we have seven IC3 meetings which we believe are going to give out redundancy notices in the next two weeks and we’ve got about 6 additional IC3 dates following that – so in total we’ve got about 20 who will be made redundant against their will in our branch alone. That’s 20 members who are going to be booted out the door for no other reason than the company’s whim. You have to wonder how many hundreds, if not thousands, more of our members are going to be made redundant in the coming months.”

George Kneeshaw, Central Counties & Thames Valley Branch:

“Negotiating has served us well in the past, and our members have been used to us delivering a pretty good agenda across the piece for a very long time now, but we do now seem to be at a point where that is not working for us anymore and compulsory redundancies are the key evidence of that.”

Pauline Rourke, Edinburgh, Dundee & Borders Branch:

“We have to reaffirm to our members that it is the company that is letting them down. We have to get the members on board, trust them and take a leap of faith.”

Jeffrey Till, Greater London Combined :

“We can’t get them to stick to the agreements we already have, so how confident can we be that we can sit down and negotiate an agreement with them that they will abide by? It honestly does appear that they are riding completely roughshod over us.”

John Turnbull, Mid Wales, the Marches & North Staffs Branch:

I’m really worried about the future of every site I speak about . I think we’re led by donkeys who have no idea what they’re doing – moving away from sites in Shropshire costing £14 a square metre to shiny new offices in places like Birmingham where it’s £300 a square metre. You wouldn’t want these people to be running your family budget, let alone a multi-million pound blue chip company!

No-one should feel safe any longer, working for a leadership like this – and I think we need to start pushing back a lot harder than we have been.”

Ian Lawrie, Scotland No.1 Branch

“I refer to the Better Workplace Programme the ‘postcode lottery’. In Technology nothing north of Manchester has been announced and, from a Scotland point of view, that’s astonishing. We have desk-based Technology members in Edinburgh and the question they’re asking at the moment is what are our prospects?”

Dave Kauffman, South East Central Branch:

“Everybody’s got to understand that everyone will be affected by the changes that are coming. This isn’t just about the compulsory redundancies our branch has been facing – it’s also about a wider attack on terms & conditions.”

Angela Teeling, Greater Mersey Branch

“We’re all in agreement that enough is enough and that we want to campaign. Let’s not waste any more time just talking about it – we need to move on to the next steps!”

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