The dispute, which involves more than 40,000 CWU members working for BT and Openreach, was triggered by BT’s unilateral imposition of real-terms pay cuts for all CWU-represented grades.
BT Group’s approach to the annual pay review this year represents a radical departure by management from the time-honoured partnership approach to industrial relations that had previously underpinned 35 years of industrial peace in BT Group. Instead of following normal negotiating protocols – under which a draft deal that is fair and acceptable to both sides is arrived at through discussions, and then recommended by the union to its membership for their ratification – this year BT abruptly terminated the talks after just six short meetings. Firm proposals had only been tabled by management in the latter two of those meetings.
BT claims the flat-rate settlement of £1,500 that it then imposed, without agreement, equates to between 3.8% and 8% dependent on where individuals sit on the pay scale – though in actuality the higher percentage going to the company’s lowest paid workers is illusory. That is because up to two thirds of the £1,500 uplift had previously been paid out to address a recruitment and retention crisis in the company’s call centres where new hires had been placed on unagreed pay rates that were only marginally over the Real Living Wage.
The CWU therefore calculates that even the biggest beneficiaries of this year’s imposed flat rate pay award have only received around 5% – with the vast majority of CWU-represented grades receiving only a little over 4% and some below 3%. That compares with spiralling inflation that saw the Government’s preferred (typically lower) CPI measure hit 10.1% in July (RPI 12.3%) and even the Bank of England predicting CPI will top 13% within months.
In 2021 members received no consolidated pay rise at all, and even the agreed settlement in 2020 was slightly below inflation. In fact, since 2020, BT pay for CWU grades has increased by just 6.6% (including the £1,500 imposed award for 2022). Without any improvement to the imposed £1,500 award, this represents a real-terms pay cut since 2020 of 6.9% based on RPI, and 2.8% based on CPI. This is despite BT’s declaration of a £1.3bn annual profit, a £761 million dividend payout for shareholders and a 32% pay increase for the CEO.
The CWU conducted its first company-wide industrial action ballot in BT Group since 1987 in June. In Openreach, where 28,425 CWU members were entitled to vote, participants recorded an eye-watering 95.8% ‘yes’ vote for industrial action on a 74.8% turnout. In BT, where 10,353 were issued with ballot papers, another remarkable ‘yes’ vote of 91.5% was recorded on a 58.2% turnout.
CWU hopes that such an overwhelming demonstration of workforce anger would persuade management back to the negotiating table were, however, met with BT categorically refusing to re-open 2022 pay negotiations.
As a result, the first national industrial action in BT Group for three and a half decades took place on July 29 and August 1 – with the all-out strike days being solidly observed by members in both BT and Openreach.
Two further all-out strike days have been called for Tuesday August 30 and Wednesday August 31.
- Prior to this industrial action the CWU was already dealing with a difficult set of negotiations on the wider structure of BT, where many of our members were facing job losses and downgrading of terms of conditions – including imposed new pay rates which we believe undervalue the work. In an attempt to reach a solution to BT’s Transformation Programme, the CWU agreed with BT an in-principle framework agreement in July 2021 to increase job security and maximise the number of UK direct labour jobs by discussing retraining and reskilling, voluntary redundancies and foresight of workplace closures to help mitigate compulsory redundancy. Negotiations were long and protracted, but unfortunately these have halted since the dispute began in March 2022. This is causing yet more unrest amongst the workforce.