Start talking NOW or next week’s industrial action will just be the start, Openreach warned

Telecoms & Financial Services, Openreach

Thursday 18th February 2021

More strike action by Repayment Project Engineers (RPEs) has been announced amid mounting fury at “bizarre and insulting” efforts by Openreach bosses to feign ignorance as to why the small but fiercely loyal group of CWU members are in dispute with the company.

Yesterday afternoon (Wednesday) – a week to the day before the first of two consecutive days of industrial action will commence over imposed changes to the grading of the highly skilled engineering role – management has been informed that three further consecutive strike days will take place between 00:01 on Wednesday March 3 and 23:59 on Friday March 5.

The move – accompanied with a reiteration of the CWU’s longstanding offer of talks aimed at achieving a negotiated settlement – follows inflammatory and disingenuous management efforts to undermine the collective stance taken by RPEs by inviting them to individual and ‘round-table’ talks “to resolve outstanding concerns”.

Consistent feedback has been received by the union that subtle pressure is already being applied on individual members over the forthcoming industrial action. But with some members now reporting veiled threats and intimidatory management tactics, CWU national officer for Openreach, Davie Bowman, has lashed out at an “absolutely incredible” reaction by the company to one of the most overwhelming rejections of management contempt for legitimate workforce concerns recorded in an industrial action ballot in generations.

Davie Bowman

In a special communication sent to the union’s 170 RPE members, Davie explains: “Given a 94% turnout and 86% support for strike action – along with all the previous meetings/ calls and emails, it seems incredible this is the only approach being adopted by Openreach to resolve this dispute.

“Of course, that is not the real purpose – it’s a blatant attempt to divide a very strong and committed group of members.”

The union understands that some members have been told by managers that on strike days they could ‘work undercover by not signing on’ – prompting Davie to warn: “This is not just disingenuous but also outside any of the duty of care processes that exist, and in the past has landed members of the CWU in serious trouble – some losing their employment – so why would that be acceptable now?”

With the current confrontational mood music emanating from Openreach’s Judd Street headquarters and the continuing lack of a company response to the  formal offer of talks made by the union on February 10 (see story here) it sadly looks inevitable that next Wednesday and Thursday will see the first industrial action to  be witnessed anywhere in BT Group since November 1999.

On Tuesday evening thousands of CWU members joined a special ‘Solidarity Session’ on Zoom to pledge their support to the 170 RPEs and tonight (Thursday) the RPEs themselves will meet discuss the next steps in a dispute they are determined to win.

From the outset the highly skilled engineers have been adamant that management’s decision to take the role out of the CWU-represented grading structure and place it on the lowest rung of the managerial ladder represents a dangerous mismatch to their skill-set and responsibilities.

Addressing Tuesday’s Solidarity event, Davie applauded the courage of RPEs’ collective conviction that management’s ill-considered re-grading of the role was not just wrong for them as individuals but also the business and its customers.

“It’s absolutely incredible and hard to believe that – after months of discussions, a thumping consultative ballot result and then a statutory ballot that absolutely smashes every hurdle in our way – the company claims to still be ‘not quite sure’ what this dispute is all about,” he observed.

Julia Upton

Chair of the union’s Openreach national team, Julia Upton, agreed: “RPEs are absolutely appalled that their feelings have been ignored and belittled up to now and that the company isn’t appreciating how strongly they feel for all the right reasons,” she insisted.

“This is probably the most selfless dispute you could imagine because it’s not about individuals wanting something for themselves. Essentially it’s about the future of their role going forward, them wanting to do the right thing by customers and their concern for Openreach’s reputation.

“We’re so proud of them,” Julia concluded.