BT Group engineers and call centre workers are taking to the picket lines today (Friday July 29) and Monday to strike over what they consider a real-term pay cut after negotiations between the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and the telecommunications giant failed to halt strike action. It is the first national BT strike for 35 years.
The strikes come the same week that BT Group released its quarterly financial results for the three months to the end of June, which saw the company bank £500m in profits. Earlier this month, the company also announced further hires in its digital business unit.
Why are BT workers striking?
The CWU, the trade union representing telecommunication workers, says that the dispute between workers and BT relates to the company’s offer of a flat-rate pay rise, while executives are taking larger raises and the cost of living rises.
“Earlier this year, BT offered and implemented a £1,500 per year pay increase for employees,” the CWU said. “In the context of Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation levels hitting 11.7% last month, this is a dramatic real-terms pay cut.” The RPI for all products is currently 11.8%.
In its last financial year, BT Group made a £1.3bn profit, with CEO Philip Jansen being awarded a 32% pay rise, taking his salary to £3.5m. The company’s chief financial officer Simon Lowth was handed £2.2m (a 25% increase) with shareholders receiving a total dividend of £700m.
CWU claims that BT has had to establish a food bank in one of its call centres to assist workers who are struggling. BT denies this, saying the ‘food pantry’ at its site in Newcastle is to help staff who don’t have time to go to the supermarket.
The strikes were officially announced on July 15, when CWU served notice to BT Group. It said that the workers who are walking out look after the vast majority of Britain’s telecoms infrastructure, from “mobile phone connection, broadband internet and back-up generators to national health systems, cyber security and data centres”. It has also warned that people working from home might see some effects due to the strikes.
Speaking at the time, CWU General Secretary Dave Ward said: “These are the same workers who kept the country connected during the pandemic. Without CWU members in BT Group, there would have been no homeworking revolution and vital technical infrastructure may have malfunctioned or been broken when our country most needed it.”
Following BT’s latest earnings announcement this week, Ward commented that it was “gaslighting” its members. “Announcing hundreds of millions of pounds in profit on the eve of the first national strike since 1987 smacks of arrogance and complete contempt for frontline workers,” he said.
How will BT serve its customers during the strikes?
A BT Group spokesperson told Tech Monitor that the company will not be reopening 2022 pay review, saying that it has already made “the best award we could”. They explain that the company is balancing the “complex and competing demands of its stakeholders” which includes investments to upgrade the country’s broadband and mobile networks.
“While we respect the choice of our colleagues who are CWU members to strike, we will work to minimise any disruption and keep our customers and the country connected,” the company spokesperson said. “We have tried and tested processes for large-scale colleague absences to minimise any disruption for our customers and these were proved during the pandemic.”
BT has said that it will postpone any “non-essential planned engineering of software updates” similar to what the company did at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and during holidays such as Christmas.
“Our continuity and resilience processes have been well rehearsed over the last two years. At the start of the pandemic, we saw a near doubling of data traffic over our core network because of the mass shift to home working,” the company said.
In June 2022, the Government brought in a change in the law that enabled businesses to provide skilled agency workers to fill staffing gaps caused by industrial strike action. BT said its workforce is partly made up of agency workers, who will not be affected by the strike action, but said it does not expect to redeploy these people to cover striking staff.
“We use a significant proportion of third-party resources to build our fibre network, which is part of our ongoing full fibre programme,” the spokesman said. “We’re not bringing in additional resources due to strike action.”
BT says it hopes business customers will not see services disrupted by the action, pointing out that small business customers have a “resilience” package to cover network outages.