Serving our members – strengthening & growing the CWUYour Voice December 5 2023
Some 13,000 of our members work in BT’s EE, former BT Consumer, Retail and Business divisions, supporting and assisting customers all over the UK, and there has been a recent surge in CWU membership, particularly since the further consolidation of the 2019 BT Group/ EE merger/acquisition…
CWU national officer Stephen Albon explains that, up until the merger/acquisition, our union did not enjoy formal recognition in EE and so, although our members there had individual representation rights under the law, there was no collective negotiation process over pay, terms and conditions.
“While we always had a significant EE membership back when it was a completely separate company, the lack of a collective agreement and the difficulties we had regularly engaging with those members did make it difficult to grow. But now that our traditional and longstanding collective-bargaining arrangements with BT Group apply to all, our membership has grown considerably at the EE sites and is now approaching similar levels to those at our traditional BT Group units.”
The national officer adds further explanation that, for the time being, and although all are BT Group employees, the ‘EE’ brand is used for residential customers. The internal organisational and functional integration however, continues and increasingly improves overall customer-care quality, as well as benefitting employees.
England’s North East hosts several of the company’s larger customer-service sites, with major centres in the region’s big-city areas and Stephen Albon invited us up to Newcastle to meet and speak with local Tyne & Wear Clerical Branch officers, workplace reps and members at two large sites in the city’s suburbs.
Arriving at the first site, Tyneside EE, we met branch secretary Ben Shaftoe and assistant secretary Miranda Stephenson, as well as branch chair Jo Shaftoe and workplace reps Louise Short and Dave Ray (pictured below left).
Jo and Ben explain that they regularly visit the contact-centres across their branch and that the two Newcastle sites employ a total of around 1,400 staff, while approximately 1,000 work at the company’s units in nearby Sunderland and Darlington.
“These four places account for the large majority of our total branch membership,” says Jo, adding: “The rest of the Tyne & Wear Clerical members are attached to several smaller buildings across the overall area. By coming out to our members on a scheduled basis as we do, we find that we can keep a close relationship with our membership, keep them informed of any latest developments – as well as taking on board their feedback in all aspects of the job and their own issues.”
Speaking with Louise Short, she says that she became a CWU rep “about seven or eight years ago” and that, this being an ‘EE’ branded site, “It took a while for us to get organised, but it’s much better with full recognition and the pay rise certainly went down very positively.”
Dave Ray explains to us that he is normally based at the company’s Darlington site – which is another ‘EE’ office – and has been a CWU rep for nearly seven years.
‘It’s a lot better for everyone now that we have full recognition and negotiations on pay, terms and conditions,” he says, adding: “Previously, it was all performance related and it was not negotiated. With the new BT Group agreement, people are getting their best pay rises for many years and it’s thanks to having the union here to negotiate pay. It’s made a big difference in people’s pockets.”
Jo makes the point that, although the recognised CWU reps primarily serve members at their own workplaces, they are also on hand to help out at other units in the branch area when required, in accordance with the facility agreement with the business. “This means we can ensure there’s always a rep at every site,” she says and adds that, as well as being on hand to assist with members’ issues, this also means that the union has a presence at new recruits’ inductions to introduce them to the union and invite them to join.
The total workforce here is around 600 and people are hard at work on the large open-plan office floor. During their breaks, a few of them take time out to chat with us about working here and Joanne Johnson and Abbi McLennan (pictured above right) are working in customer service and mobile care.
Both of them are CWU members and they express appreciation for the pay rise the union negotiated, as well as the assistance and representation the union and reps provide. Different duty patterns are worked here, they explain, and there is scope for hybrid working too – a combination of office and ‘WFH’ – as well as part time and full time options.
Several of those we speak with came to work here from the now-closed South Shields office, which Andrew Dawson (pictured below speaking with Miranda Stephenson) recalls “was absolutely freezing!
“This is a nice site – the temperature is fine and the facilities are good,” he continues, adding: “The union’s doing a really good job here.”
Joy Mogford is another former South Shields worker and, although she has a longer commute to this site, “at least the air-con, heating and plumbing all work!” Another benefit of working at this larger unit is getting to know new people and finding out more about other functions within the business. “A collections opportunity came up recently for example,” she tells us, adding that she joined the CWU at her induction.
After a quick lunch at the excellent staff canteen, we journey over to the BT Customer Contact Centre in Longbenton, which, with a workforce of approximately 800, is slightly larger than the first site.
Hannah Turney and Danny McPherson (above left) are both fairly new to the company, having started here about six months ago and for both of them, this is their first experience of trade union membership, while Craig Mohan has only been in the job since September. Here as well, there is appreciation of the site itself and of the staff facilities available.
Describing their job as “home tech,” which is assisting customers whose equipment is not working, they talk of how they are taught how to identify the problem and explain how to resolve it. This job can sometimes mean dealing with frustrated or sometimes angry customers and there are procedures in place to help and support staff in this aspect of their jobs.
Each of these three tell us of instances when Jo has helped and supported them with an issue. Jo comments that “by being on-site as much as possible, we’re here to help deal with issues that arise at the earliest possible stage and have a good working relationship with local management – and this minimises the need to take grievances or other situations through formal procedure. Obviously, there are times when this is unavoidable, but it’s always our aim to resolve early if we can.”
Cameron Cruddas (above right) has worked here for five years and became a CWU workplace rep at the beginning of this year. “I wanted to find out more, to get involved more,” he says. “The things the union does, you couldn’t do on your own. I see the union supporting and helping us – standing up for the little guy – and I wanted to do that for my colleagues.”
His colleague Jimmy Johnston, who also works on customer complaints, has been here since 2008 and says that the recent refurbishment of the site has been a big improvement. “It’s a lot better now than it was and a better environment to work in,” he comments, and his view of the union is also positive.
“The CWU is 100 per cent worth the money,” he says.
Speaking afterwards, Stephen Albon told us: “What’s clear from this area and others around the country is that full recognition for our EE members has already paid huge benefits for members, while our existing members – and new recruits – are all seeing the full benefit of CWU membership as well. And what’s also important is the crucial role of our frontline reps and branch officers in keeping up regular direct engagement with our members and management at the workplace.
“The fantastic work that all our branches and reps are doing is a key reason for the growth in membership. Visibility, direct face-to-face engagement and consistent support – and negotiated pay rises of course – are what makes all the difference to someone joining the CWU.
“Also, as a staunch Sunderland man, thanks guys for the banter every time I visit Newcastle!”