United front against BT compulsory redundancy threat


The CWU’s rock-solid determination to defend the union’s fundamental red line on compulsory redundancies in BT was forcefully reiterated at an emergency branch forum at CWU headquarters yesterday (Thursday).

Following a week which has seen nearly 370 loyal employees in the Enterprise division placed formally ‘at risk’ of being forcibly exited, the mood was grim as the packed reps meeting digested the potential repercussions of the most serious challenge the union has faced in BT since the 1987 national strike.

Despite the CWU’s pledge to work constructively with BT to help it secure its desired headcount reduction voluntarily – using tried and tested mechanisms contained in long-standing bi-lateral agreements – to date senior management has steadfastly refused to rule out compulsory redundancies.

The union remains convinced, however, that a combination of voluntary leaver packages, redeployment and reskilling could easily secure the numbers management is seeking – implying that the company’s intransigence is either based on bad HR advice or designed to deliberately test the CWU’s resolve.

Either way, the union’s response has been robust. Last week a formal disagreement was registered with the company over management’s failure to provide information it is required to give under various collective agreements (and sometimes by law) before finalising proposals that could lead to compulsory redundancy.

Since then the union has taken legal advice on the steps BT needs to take to ensure that the selection criteria are fair and that consultation with ‘in-scope’ individuals is meaningful.

Omissions already flagged up by the CWU include:

  • BT’s failure to adequately consider all possible alternative roles for those ‘at risk’ prior to them being placed in-scope
  • Inadequate information to allow for an objective assessment as to whether alternative roles could be found
  • The lack of detailed information provided on agency and contract levels, overtime levels and the amount of work that is currently done off-shore – some of which the union knows was only sent overseas in the last few months.

Stressing that the CWU’s primary duty is to defend each and every one of the 367 ‘at risk’ individuals who do not want to take a VR package, deputy general secretary Andy Kerr urged branches to assist headquarters in a massive information gathering exercise designed to prove that compulsory redundancies are unnecessary and morally unjustifiable.

This will entail the collation of detailed information about potential redeployment opportunities across not just Enterprise but also other lines of business that operate in the localities where at-risk individuals are based.

It will also include an examination of the skill sets of those targeted in order to scope the suitability of potential alternative roles. In the case of individuals who appear to have been targeted because of the fact they are homeworkers or work in isolated exchanges, the union will be checking whether the existence of  special health needs, caring responsibilities or any other factor accounting for their location that could imply their selection is unfair or even discriminatory,

“We’re not going to resolve this issue by just identifying potential vacancies in Enterprise. It will also involve looking at other lines of business including Openreach, Consumer and Technology – as well as the potential for onshoring of previously offshored work and a reassessment of the use of contractors and agency staff,” Andy insisted.

“This is a massive job of work, but I’m determined that absolutely no stone is left unturned in our efforts to identify solutions for every single ‘at risk’ member who wants to stay with BT.”

Pointing out substantial redeployment opportunities are already known to exist at or near some of the major clusters of proposed job losses – notably in Lincoln and Sevenoaks – Andy continued: “We already know the scale of the challenge we face is some way south of the 367 figure – but how far south is the question.

“Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about 300, 100 or even one. When it comes to compulsory redundancies the issue for us is one of principle.”

The union’s policy on the issue is unequivocal , with a motion that was carried unanimously at this spring’s CWU Annual Conference stating that ‘in the event of the company proposing or imposing any compulsory redundancies the T&FS Executive are instructed to immediately embark on a campaign of opposition and, if necessary, ballot our members for industrial action.’

Looming campaign

Despite the union’s hopes that sense will prevail, preparations are underway for a major campaign that will lead to an industrial action ballot should the company press the button on even one compulsory redundancy.

“While its certainly the case that some will want to take the money and go, and that others will be successfully redeployed, I keep coming back to the 40-year-old with three kids and a big mortgage in a remote location,” stresses national officer for Enterprise, Allan Eldred.

“Through no fault of their own that person’s stomach will be knotted with fear for the future  – and I’m not going to sleep properly until I’m sure we’ve protected those people with every ounce of our being.

“This is a red line that we laid down; it’s a red line that branches unanimously supported at Conference just this year  – and now we’ve got to be prepared to deliver whatever it takes if the company doesn’t back off.”

The importance of maintaining the time-honoured voluntary approach to headcount reductions within BT is highlighted by the analysis of the age profile of the 367 currently ‘at risk’.

With the youngest individual in scope aged just 20, a further 22 under 30, 54 in the 30 to 40 age bracket and a total of 161 of those impacted being under the age of 50, it’s clear that redundancy payouts would be low for many of those affected.

“It’s all very well saying that the largest redundancy payouts could amount to two years for those with the longest service, but the reality is that for those with comparatively short service it wouldn’t amount to more than a few weeks wages,” insists Andy Kerr.

“It’s also a fact that, if we’re forced to take the company on, this is a fight we cannot lose – because otherwise it will be open season on our members across the whole of BT because redeployment as we know it would effectively be dead.

“That’s why the campaign we’ll be running won’t be just about Enterprise but truly company-wide.”