BT Group staff have voted to take strike action for the first time in 35 years. If it goes ahead, the industrial action, supported by the Communications Workers Union (CWU), could leave many businesses without support and may impact national telecommunications infrastructure.
BT Group is the umbrella company that owns companies such as infrastructure subsidiary Openreach and mobile network EE. It has more than 1.2 million corporate and public sector customers.
Yesterday CWU announced that more than 40,000 members across the BT Group were balloted, including 30,000 Openreach engineers. On a 74.8% turnout, the union’s engineers voted by 95.8% to strike.
This was followed by around 9,000 call centre workers, who voted by 91.5% on a 58.2% turnout. Members working for EE voted in favour of striking by 95%, though this was on a 49.7% turnout which fell just short of the required threshold for action.
Dates for strike action have yet to be set.
Why are BT workers planning to strike?
According to CWU, the dispute relates to BT workers opposing the company’s offer of a flat-rate pay rise, while executives take larger raises, the union says.
“Earlier this year, BT offered and implemented a £1,500 per year pay increase for employees,” CWU said in its press statement following the ballot vote. “In the context of Retail Price Index (RPI) inflation levels hitting 11.7% last month, this is a dramatic real-terms pay cut.”
CWU says this is on the back of the company making a £1.3bn profit in the last financial year, with CEO Philip Jansen being awarded a 32% pay rise, taking his salary to £3.5m.
Dave Ward, general secretary of CWU, says that its membership has faced the challenges of home working, high staff turnover and a “real culture of fear created by senior management”. This has contributed to support for strike action.
“Call centre workers are some of the most casualised and isolated workforces in this country,” Ward said. “These workers kept this country connected during the pandemic. Without CWU members working across BT Group, there would have been no home-working revolution.”
How has BT responded to the strike ballot?
BT Group said that the ballot was a “disappointment” but that it will work to keep its customers across the UK connected.
“BT Group awarded its highest pay rise for frontline colleagues in more than 20 years – an average 5% increase and up to 8% for those on the lowest salaries,” said a BT statement shared with Tech Monitor. “At the same time, we’re in the middle of a once-in-a-generation investment programme to upgrade the country’s broadband and mobile networks. These investments are vital for the benefit of our millions of customers and for the UK economy.”
The corporation goes on to say that it is balancing the demands of the company’s stakeholders, which require “careful management during a challenging economic environment”. It is awaiting notification from CWU of its intention to launch industrial action, which requires a minimum notice period, it says.
How will the BT strike impact businesses and the public sector?
The strike action has not been confirmed and there is still potential for negotiations to succeed between BT Group and CWU. The earliest workers could strike is the end of July.
However, as BT Group is the largest provider of fixed broadband in the UK there could be serious effects on infrastructure for everyone in the UK, especially those who work from home or who are BT Group business customers, who span the private and public sectors.
Communications providers (CPs) also rely on BT Group for its wholesale mobile network capabilities, voice services, broadband, Ethernet and other connectivity solutions. Through Openreach, it sells wholesale access to fixed network infrastructure to 690 CPs.
In terms of contracts, BT Group has been awarded ICT contracts with central and local government and the police forces.
With nearly 40,000 workers potentially striking, 30,000 being Openreach engineers, ramifications of the unionised action could be felt across central government, local authorities, CPs and private companies of all types.
Rob Pritchard, senior analyst for GlobalData's Technology, Enterprise Technology and Services Networking team, says that the strikes could impact three key areas for BT customers: repairs, installations and customer service.
"The immediate impact, if a strike were to go ahead, would be on things like installations and repairs because obviously it's not like the trains or the Post Office - most things are automated," he told Tech Monitor. Customer service will also be impacted because, while chatbots do some of the initial help online, people may still rely on speaking to someone when they need help with their products or service.
Businesses and public sector IT departments looking to contract BT need to start accelerating anything before the strike happens, especially if it's urgent, says Pritchard. There is also potential reputational damage at a time when BT is rebranding, making EE its flagship brand for consumer customers and keeping the BT name at the forefront of its B2B offering, he adds.
BT says it has "tried and tested processes" for large-scale colleague absences to minimise disruption for customers, saying it proved this during the pandemic. "As a precaution, we are ready to do the same again should industrial action go ahead," it says.