Rising to the COVID-19 challenge in Openreach

Telecoms & Financial Services

Important protections secured by the CWU on behalf of members in Openreach during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis were celebrated at the first ever national briefing of activists representing members in that company to have been conducted by video conference.

Well over 50 branch activists from all four corners of the UK participated in yesterday’s (Thursday) online forum, analysing not just the significant wins secured by the union in a number of fiercely contested areas, but also the lessons that can be learned for the future from the transformed ways in which the union is communicating with members both nationally and locally.

These include an explosion in the frequency of directly emailed bulletins to members  across Openreach from CWU headquarters,  right through to branches individually phoning members  to check on their welfare  – with many stepping up their  social media profile  and some even successfully trialling online members’ meetings via Zoom, GoTo and various other platforms.

Commenting on the overwhelmingly positive response of members to both the national and local CWU efforts to keep them informed, CWU national officer for Openreach, Davie Bowman said: “None of us would want these new forms of communication to ever completely replace face to face contact, but the truth is that the situation we’re going to be in isn’t going to go away anytime soon, and all the indications are that we’ve actually been extremely successful in keeping a dialogue going.”

Just last Thursday one of the latest bulletins to have been emailed directly to members reported the union’s success in persuading Openreach to retract unagreed and insultingly communicated new deadlines as to when predetermined blocks of annual leave needed to be taken. See bulletin here.

Assistant secretary Davie Bowman explains: “Why Openreach chose to act as it did I simply don’t know – but the fact is that we successfully challenged the new triggers and the implication in the company’s high-handed original edict that those not managing to take set amounts of leave before the end of June and September would lose it.”

Other areas in which CWU intervention has either already secured important safeguards for members, or where the union is still pressing for further guarantees in advance of a widespread ‘return to work’ include:

  • The provision of adequate PPE in all circumstances
  • Wide-ranging discussions over social distancing and safe working protocols in all parts of the business – including  the company’s training centres, which are now in the process of re-opening
  • A particular focus on how driver safety training can be safely resumed, including the protocols that are put in place for cleansing between training sessions
  •  The agreement of a framework that means the CWU will be actively consulted whenever plans are announced to re-open a building. This will include detailed discussions with the company to address people issues thrown up by those decisions.

“There will need to be a serious debate about the future of homeworking in general, and that in itself will throw up a number of different issues,” Davie stresses.

“While some desk-based employees will positively want to continue with the homeworking arrangements that are currently in place, for others – especially those in shared accommodation or who don’t have the segregated space required for an effective workstation – that isn’t necessarily an option and solutions will need to be found for these individuals.”

Davie insisted the CWU would not be considering a phased repopulation of Openreach workplaces in isolation where they apply in buildings shared with other BT lines of business – pointing out that, in some locations, space formerly occupied by Openreach Desk has been commandeered by BT Consumer to enable its own staff to spread out and maintain social distancing.

“There’s clearly a huge potential for social distancing to  become a major problem once again where different lines of business are bringing more people back into the same buildings at the same time,” he explained.

“We’re going to have to deal with the detail of any return to workplaces with the individual business units, but we have to maintain an overview and take a collective approach across the piece or otherwise social distancing problems will simply be moved around buildings and we’re going to end up in a right mess.”


Lively discussion…

Amongst the many other issues touched on in an especially wide-ranging meeting were the current upsurge in abusive behaviour directed at field engineers stemming from the 5G/COVID-19 conspiracy theory that and last weekend’s media speculation, flatly denied by BT Group, that it may be considering selling a stake in Openreach

Above everything, however, the tone of the meeting was a positive endorsement of the way in which the CWU has responded both nationally and locally to the challenges thrown up by coronavirus – not just in continuing to defend  the interests of members but also in embracing  new ways to engage and communicate with both branches and the rank and file.

Delegates to the first ever online Openreach Briefing Committee– which was better attended and included more young reps than the  traditional face-to-face meetings at CWU HQ in Wimbledon – agreed that, going forward, such meetings should augment  the old way of doing things.

Pointing out that such online forums can actually help the union reach members who wouldn’t normally attend traditional union meetings, South East Central Branch chair Dave Kauffman cited the runaway success of his branch’s first ever video conference branch meeting.

Other reps, told of the overwhelmingly positive response  they had received to all member ring-rounds conducted by some branches to check on individuals’ welfare.

Openreach national team chair Julia Upton pointed out that it would be remiss of the union not to embrace the success of such initiatives – even once the need for socially distanced engagement has receded.

“None of us would ever want this to fully replace how we used to operate – but I truly believe that, there is an opportunity for us to take the best of both approaches going forward.

“You don’t  need a coronavirus crisis for a union rep to be picking up the phone to contact members to show concern for their welfare and to understand the issues that are important to them. Of course, the circumstances we are in at present are extreme and unprecedented – but with or without COVID-19 these conversations are going to be just as well received by members in the future.”