Strike ballot demanded over BT compulsory redundancy threat

Telecoms & Financial Services, BT

Colleagues of the first BT team member grade employee ever to have been served a compulsory redundancy notice have today (Thursday) issued a formal request to CWU headquarters to be balloted for industrial action.

The dramatic escalation of an already serious situation at BT Enterprise follows weeks of mounting dismay and disbelief amongst South East Central branch members at not just the company’s treatment of the individual in question – a female engineer in her 40s with 31 years of service – but also a sizeable number of her colleagues who expect to receive CR notices imminently.

Three weeks after the CWU nationally urged BT’s top brass to “stop this madness” and rein in Enterprise management’s apparently determination to test the CWU’s longstanding  ‘red line’ on compulsory redundancies, patience finally snapped at a packed extraordinary general meeting of South East Central branch members in Sevenoaks last Thursday night (February 27).

The Kent town’s BT Workstyle building houses one of the biggest concentrations of workers whose future employment is threatened by Enterprise’s national downsizing plans anywhere in the country. Not only is Enterprise withdrawing from Sevenoaks in its entirety, but local redeployment opportunities to other BT divisions are unusually limited.

Of the dozens of local CWU members who were originally placed ‘at risk’ – in addition to the Brighton homeworker who has already been told her last day of service will be May 31 – just under half face the very real possibility of being made compulsorily redundant by the end of August.

Virtually all were present at last Thursday’s emergency branch meeting, and a strong turnout of colleagues working for other BT divisions – including Openreach – ensured there was standing room only at the gathering which had been extensively advertised to members as ‘a pivotal meeting to make serious decisions’.

Stressing that the South East Central Branch was “appalled at the way the company has treated its long-serving and loyal employees,”, the EGM invite continued: “The situation is so serious that a decision must be made by the Branch on whether to request a ballot for industrial action. We believe there is no other choice.”

After just over an hour of discussion – including impassioned contributions by South East Central branch secretary Chris Power, CWU national officer for BT Enterprise, Allan Eldred and many of those expecting to soon be given their marching orders – a motion was tabled calling on CWU Headquarters to initiate a ballot of ‘relevant members’ for industrial action, up to and including strike action.

That motion – poignantly proposed and seconded by rank and file members who are themselves staring the prospect of compulsory redundancy in the face – was carried unanimously, with no abstentions (pictured above). Branch members were clearly un-moved by an eve of meeting announcement by local management that some redeployment opportunities might be available in Brentwood – a development that was viewed as cynical and deliberately timed to muddy the waters.

Speaking after the vote, Allan Eldred (pictured above left)  said: “The clear and unequivocal message that has been delivered by members of the South East Central branch is that they’re not prepared to sit back and be treated in this appalling manner a moment longer.

“Our members in Sevenoaks and elsewhere have been patient with this company – but that patience has now run out. The company is breaking its own policies and processes when it comes to the treatment of those it has placed at risk of compulsory redundancy, and people have had enough.”

Allan stressed he believed the significance of the vote could not be overstated given BT’s wider site strategy under the  ‘Better Workplace Programme’ which aims to rationalise the BT Estate from 300 to just 30 locations over the next three to five years.

“Although we are yet to see the detail of BT’s plans in other areas, our South East Central branch members have recognised that, as soon as compulsory redundancies become established as the way to deal with surplus situations, redeployment as we know it in BT will be dead,” he continued.

“I believe this decision will act as a beckoning call for the increasing number of our members who feel under attack by this company. This is the first step in a fight-back that won’t stop here.”

Deputy general secretary Andy Kerr concludes: “Any company that purports to value its workforce needs to take stock when loyal and hardworking employees in one locality feel so badly treated that they are asking their national union to ballot them for industrial action.

“Even now I’d urge senior BT management to take stock of a situation which could easily spiral out of control.

“From the very outset the CWU has argued that there was absolutely no reason for Enterprise management to raise the spectre of compulsory redundancies. The division’s current staff surplus pales into insignificance compared with the huge headcount reductions that have taken place across BT since privatisation without the need for a single forced exit.

“The CWU has a long history of working constructively with BT in these situations and is absolutely committed to work with the company to achieve everything it wants without creating a needless industrial relations and staff morale crisis.

“The unanswered question, however, is what do senior management want?”

United message of defiance…

Joe Brennan, Enterprise employee, Sevenoaks:

“If people knew how BT were treating their staff they would be disgusted and I think we have to do something about it. I think the only thing they will understand is when we threaten them business-wise or embarrass them publicly.”

Claire Hood, Enterprise employee, homeworker:

“I’ve worked for BT for 33 years and for all that time I’ve been conscientious and dedicated, always going the extra mile – yet then we’re all called into a meeting to be told we no longer have  jobs.  I never thought something like this would happen in BT. My father worked in BT, my brother worked in BT, my husband is in Openreach – I thought it was a job for life  – but once BT have done this once they’ll do it time and time again and no-one will be safe. This is the stepping stone, and it’s very sad.

 Chas Nicholls, Enterprise employee, Sevenoaks:

“Even though I’m getting on a bit my goal-plan  was to work for another five years,  but there’s nothing available in the south east at all. The rest of the company needs to be made aware of what is going on – because we’re just a small group and this is old-fashioned divide and rule. As such, I’m proud my Branch is making this stand.”

John Nicholson, Enterprise employee, Sevenoaks

“I’m in the firing line and for me it’s important the Branch has put down a marker because this is a matter of principle. The whole raison d’etre on which the union is predicated is that it’s against compulsory redundancy – so that leaves us with absolutely no alternative but to ballot for strike action. The company has backed us into a corner, so we have to fight, and we will.”

Steve Taylor, South East Central Branch officer

“This is like the big bad wolf knocking on the door: After taking out the little pig with the house made of sticks it’s going to go on to the next one and the next one. What people need to take from this is that they could be next – and that’s why it’s so important this is fought to the wire.”

Richard Cobern, South East Central Branch officer

“I think the company is of the opinion that we won’t make a stand, and that’s exactly why we must. If we don’t stand up now this will be just the beginning of a domino effect which will affect many thousands of people within the company.”

Darren Weller, Enterprise employee, Sevenoaks

“I’ve been a loyal member of the BT family for 32 years and I feel like I’m just being discarded. This affects my life, my family, my wife, my children, my house – and I’m not going to stand for it. I’ve got a certificate on my desk saying ‘thank you for your outstanding loyalty for the last 30 years’ and that I’m a ‘valued member of staff’. Well I can tell you I don’t feel valued now.  I don’t think that anyone can be under any illusion that what they are doing in Enterprise now isn’t going to affect the rest of the company down the line. We’re just the test paper , and that’s why we need to make a stand – not just for ourselves, but for every other member of the BT family.”

Peter Francis, T&FS Executive member

“I think it’s needed a branch like South East Central to show what should be done, what needs to be done and how it can be done –  because with the number of members we have affected it’s important we lead the way. As a member of the Enterprise national team I feel we’ve been led up the garden path by the company. This is a clear and deliberate path they’re trying to lead us on, and all they’re doing is learning for the bigger battle that lies ahead. We know what’s coming, they just want to line up their ducks , and we’ve got to show them we are ready to take them on.”

Dave Kauffman, South East Central Branch chair

“At the end of the day the telecoms industry has been pretty much free of industrial action in the last 30 years – 1987 being the last strike – and it’s really important that we all learn very quickly about how to run these campaigns. Unions often work best from the bottom up – and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Chris Power, South East Central Branch secretary:

“Our members have had enough of being pushed around. This issue has been floating around for four months now – the membership has had enough and so has the Branch. I’m confident we will get full support from our members for anything we decide to do.”