OpenReach engineers and BT call centre in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) have voted for strike action over what they say in an “insulting pay offer” in the context of BT’s profits and shareholder payouts.
Why are workers going on strike?
Workers were balloted across all three arms of BT Group’s business, with workers at OpenReach, and British Telecoms will all walk out.
Within the OpenReach part of the business, of 28,425 workers who were eligible to vote, 21,272 did so and of them 95.8% voted in favour of strike action, or 20358 people.
Across British Telecoms, 6,022 (58.2%) of the 10,353 workers eligible to vote took part in the ballot, of which 5,503 (91.5%) backed industrial action.
At EE, the smallest of the three ballots, industrial action will not go ahead despite more than 95% of those who voted backing it, as the overall turnout did not meet the 50% legal threshold.
Many trade union figures have long criticised the legal threshold for ballot on industrial action, pointing out that no such rules on minimum turnout exist in democratic elections, for instance.
While more than 95% of the EE workers who voted in the ballot industrial action, the turnout fell eight votes short of the legal threshold, so these workers will not go out on strike.
CWU Deputy General Secretary Andy Kerr said that if the members who had joined the union in recent days had been allowed to vote, this ballot would also have passed.
Negotiations between CWU and BT over pay failed to result in a deal, with the firm insisting it cannot offer more than the flat increase.
Union figures point to BT’s annual profit of £1.3bn last year and the £700m paid out to investors as evidence that ‘affordability is not the issue’.
BT has offered and already implemented a flat pay increase of £1,500 per year for all UK staff, which the company says equates to a rise of around 3% for workers on top-end salaries, and around 8% for those on lower wages.
In a press conference to announce the ballot results, CWU general secretary Dave Ward warned the company that they must take back the imposed pay deal and renegotiate, which could then see industrial action prevented.
“We always want to achieve a settlement,” Mr Ward said, “but we are serious about this.”
Can BT afford to offer workers more?
While director’s salaries have not increased , overall directors pay is up on last year as a result of bonuses, which the company says were paid in part as share options.
As the highest paid executive director, Philip Jansen’s total package in 2022 was worth £3.4 million, compared with £2.6 million in 2021.
Mr Jansen has invested more than £10m in BT Group shares since 2018 and owns shares equivalent to just over 14x his salary.
Simon Lowth, another director, saw his overall remuneration package rise from £1.8 million in 2021 to £2.2 million in 2022.
CWU has also highlighted the significant dividend payout to investors, totalling £700 million last year.
Mr Ward said: “For the first time in nearly four decades, we are faced with national level strike action across BT Group.
“Our membership faced the challenges of home working, high staff turnover, and a real culture of fear created by senior management to deliver an overwhelming show of support for strike action.
“I want to pay specific tribute to our call centre workers in BT, who have delivered a historic move by voting for the first - and biggest - national call centre workers strike in British history.
“Call centre workers are some of the most casualised and isolated workforces in this country. They are notoriously difficult to organise, and the unprecedented vote they have taken today demonstrates the anger so many people feel in this country today.
“Our members were never going to accept imposition. BT Group thought they could get away with bullying treatment – they were wrong.
“These workers kept this country connected during the pandemic. Without CWU members working across BT Group, there would have been no home-working revolution.”
When will strike action take place, and will it be disruptive?
Speaking before the results, Mr Kerr said that workers would be “thinking of the soaring cost of living, and the insulting treatment they’ve received at the hands of employers” as they decided whether to vote for industrial action.
He said: “While BT Group created even better profits than was expected, many workers who made that profit rely on food banks and don’t know how they will pay their bills.
“The people at the top of BT should be thinking about that as they count their money.
“These key worker heroes are more than owed a proper pay increase – and if they aren’t going to be given it, they’re not afraid to fight for what they deserve.”
The result of the ballot is expected tomorrow, from which point industrial action could commence as soon as two weeks later.
While in some disputes a successful ballot for strike action could prompt further negotiations which could avert the action, it is unlikely in this case as the pay offer has already been implemented.
BT sources have played down the likelihood of reappraising the current offer or proposing add-ons.
There will be some disruption to telecoms services if industrial action does go ahead.
BT has stressed that it has contingency plans in place and that disruption will be kept to a minimum.
A BT Group spokesperson said: “We awarded the highest pay rise we could for Team Members and frontline colleagues across BT Group; it’s our highest salary increase in more than 20 years.
“So it’s disappointing that the CWU has decided to ballot for industrial action without consulting its members on the outcome of our negotiations. If a strike takes place, nobody wins.”