‘Where’s Jansen?’ message hits home as 999 call handlers turn up the heat on BT Group


Another rock-solid display of workforce fury at the real-term pay cuts that have triggered the first national strike in BT Group for 35 years has drawn mass media attention to the bizarre missing presence of the company’s CEO in a dispute that has now spread to the UK’s emergency services infrastructure.

Despite repeated CWU appeals to the telecoms giant to return to the negotiating table to resolve an increasingly bitter showdown that has now seen six days of industrial action involving more than 40,000 BT and Openreach workers, senior management faces have been conspicuous by their absence in news coverage – except on banners, memes and picket line facemasks!!

The invisibility of BT’s top brass has been especially evident during the two most recent strike days – with the CWU spotlighting the managerial void in multiple TV, radio and newspaper interviews about the inclusion of 999 call handlers in the action that took place yesterday (Monday) and last Thursday (October 6).

More than 500 of their number withdrew their labour for the first time in the latest escalation of the increasingly bitter pay dispute.

Yet despite predictable efforts by BT Group’s anonymous PR machine to brand the CWU’s actions ‘irresponsible’ and ‘reckless’, the public face of the dispute was dominated by ordinary 999 operators calmly explaining why successive management insults had left them with no option but to join the picket lines.

Individuals like Joyce Stevenson of the CWU’s Scotland No.1 Branch – a 999 call handler of 44 years – whose painfully honest assessment of management’s ultimate culpability for the services disruption reached millions courtesy of Good Morning Britain, STV and Channel 5 news, multiple radio interviews and print media coverage ranging from the local and regional press to national newspapers including The Guardian.

In an especially poignant article in Tribune, Joyce tells of the particularly intolerable situation faced by newer 999 recruits who earn just £21,500 a year. “Often they’re using foodbanks, they’re on Universal Credit,” she explains. “Many are single parents, paying high rent, struggling to find a work-life balance.

“These situations are intolerable to accept any longer. When our colleagues in BT Group voted in unprecedented numbers to take strike action we accepted the decision of our union to stay in work. It was difficult because people were serious about showing their anger, but it was accepted that, as a show of goodwill, we would stay in and take the calls.

“But goodwill doesn’t top up the heaters, and we didn’t even get that. Management refused to talk.

“If lives are put at risk, the blame will lie firmly with BT.”

CWU deputy general secretary Andy Kerr agrees: “Up and down the country, BT and Openreach workers are asking: ‘Where’s Philip Jansen?’

“It’s unacceptable that someone like him can evade any scrutiny of his decisions when they result in 999 calls getting left unmanned and national infrastructure at risk.

“BT Group workers are sick of this corporate arrogance, and they are determined and united to fight for the dignity they deserve.”

Reckless? Irresponsible? Look in the mirror, BT!

Speaking to striking 999 operators on the picket line outside Alexander Bain House in Glasgow, the anger and hurt they feel at multiple management insults was palpable.

For Catherine Ronald, who has worked for BT for 43 years – 33 of which has been in 999 – this year’s imposed real-term pay cut was the final straw after no consolidated increase at all in 2021.

“We know that people depend on the 999 service but the way we’re looking at this is that it’s not us putting lives at risk – it’s the senior management in BT and the CEO. They know they could have stopped the 999 operators going out by talking to the CWU, but they didn’t even try.

“Sometimes you just have to make a stand. No-one going on strike in these times is happy to do so. People can’t really afford it and I’m one of the ones taking the hit twice over because my husband – an Openreach engineer – is also on strike. It’s not an easy decision, but it has to be done.”

Sharon McLeish, a single parent who last year had to decline the unconsolidated lump sum ‘thank you’ payment for working through the pandemic on account of the impact it have had on the vital Universal Credit top-up to her part time wages, agrees.

“My message to management would be ‘get round the table’. If there was any discussion or movement we wouldn’t be here now. The fact they’re refusing to talk really hurts.”

Erin Kelly, also a single parent, adds: “It was a really hard decision for a lot of us to come out on strike – with it playing on our consciences – but we realised we simply had to try to make things better not just for us but for everyone else working for BT and all our new colleagues coming through the ranks as well.

“This is the first job that I’ve ever loved coming into work for, even though it’s stressful because we are the first point of contact for people in distress. It could be somebody’s worst day in the world and we handle that call…yet if we don’t work enough Sundays we don’t clear enough to survive the month. I’m always having to borrow off my mum and sisters and give it back when I’m paid, but it’s just a vicious circle.

“This isn’t about us being greedy – it’s just us wanting to be able to survive and pay our bills.”

Claire Gallagher concludes: “If anyone thinks we’re being irresponsible I’d just ask them to put themselves in our shoes and ask how they would feel doing such a vital job and being paid so little that some people are even having to go to foodbanks.

“How can that be right in this day and age?”