Openreach strike intensifies as management adopts ‘ostrich position’

Telecoms & Financial Services, Openreach

Monday 12th April 2021

Five more days of strike action have been announced in Openreach, with the CWU’s small but fiercely loyal membership of repayment project engineers (RPEs) more resolute and determined than ever to intensify their battle against the imposed regrading of their role.

The 170-strong group have already notched up 10 days of industrial action over the company’s refusal engage with the union over legitimate concerns that the move creates a dangerous mismatch of responsibilities – detracting from their ability to act as ‘honest brokers’ in complex negotiations with third party organisations over who pays for what in situations where the network is disrupted by major developments.

Despite heartfelt warnings to Openreach that placing the RPE role on the lowest rung of the managerial ladder – thereby applying performance related pay and targets to a function that primarily depends on impartial technical judgements based on advanced engineering knowhow –  is misguided, bosses are still refusing to even contemplate the possibility that the regrading risks huge reputational damage and even regulatory penalties.

With the latest of many CWU efforts to engage with management summarily rebuffed – despite indications that workstacks are now at breaking point following the five consecutive days of industrial action that concluded on March 24 – the decision has now been made to step the dispute with a solid week of industrial action commencing a week today (April 19-23).

Not since the 1987 national strike have any group of workers anywhere in BT Group felt compelled to make such a decisive stand against management intransigence and belligerence.

While the specific triggers of the RPE dispute are unique to a group of workers who are adamant their role should remain a team member grade, it is not insignificant that the announcement of the third full week of RPE strike action comes in the wake of the union’s declaration last month of its intention to ballot members across the whole of BT, Openreach and EE over unprecedented attacks on job security and hard won terms & conditions.

For some time it’s been evident that, at the heart of both disputes, lies a hitherto unseen level of arrogance, belligerence and stubbornness by a new management team which appears incapable of accepting its decisions can ever be questioned – even when they are clearly misguided.

With Openreach now firefighting significant backlogs and growing customer anger over delays to cost-sensitive multi-agency projects, management’s official line is that the industrial action to date has had little or no impact at all!

“It’s quite clear that the company is wilfully sticking its head in the sand,” insists CWU national officer for Openreach, Davie Bowman. “Publicly, at least, Openreach is pursuing a narrative about the impact of this dispute that is frankly insulting to customers and employees alike.

“What they’ve inexplicably failed to grasp, however – despite the fact it should have been blindingly obvious after 10 solidly supported days of industrial action – is the resolve of RPEs not to be browbeaten by blatant management lies and disinformation.

“That’s why we’ve now served notice of a further five days of strike action – deliberately scheduled to wipe out a whole calendar week to maximise the disruption to the company.

“With some managers blatantly trying to cover up the fact there’s a dispute at all – telling customers that delays are because of Covid or annual leave – RPEs are determined to smash any such deceptions, in part by upping the ante with regards to both physical and online picketing.”


Management’s parallel universe…

Bemusement at the falsehoods Openreach is perpetuating in its efforts to downplay the impact  of the RPE dispute and to question the solidity of the strike action is combined with a growing conviction that the absurdity of management’s pronouncements are increasingly plain for all to see .

At a well attended online meeting of RPEs last Wednesday evening, one participant described the plainly delusional pronouncements of one senior local manager as “the gift that keeps on giving every time he opens his mouth.”

“One of the points he regularly makes is that our industrial action is having no effect – yet then we hear they’re struggling and that they have a backlog that urgently needs addressing,” the member continued. “If we’re not having any effect on the stats how come the stats are so bad?”

Another RPE added: “Long may they continue with their heads in the sand. At the end of the day it’s going to be the company that will suffer because they’ll have a massive loss of income coming in. It’s pathetic they’re unwilling to discuss this issue to try to resolve this dispute.

“We simply cannot not carry on with the action,” he concluded, urging “as many of us as possible get out on the pickets to show our support for the cause.”

  • A special Facebook Live session on the wider industrial relations crisis in Openreach took place last Thurday evening. The session – which covered unprecedented threats to job security and terms & conditions across the division – can be viewed here