BT engineers and call centre staff – the majority of the company’s 58,000-strong frontline workforce – are set to strike over pay.
The UK’s largest telecoms company has been in dispute with the Communication Workers Union (CWU), which represents about 40,000 BT workers, over pay as the cost of living soars.
In April, BT awarded 58,000 workers a £1,500 pay rise, which it said was its biggest award in two decades. The CWU, which is pushing for a 10% rise at BT as inflation hit a 40-year high of 9.1% last month, called the offer “insulting” and a “relative pay cut”.
A strike would be likely to cause disruption to services including repairs, having new phone and internet lines fitted and getting hold of support staff.
Dave Ward, general secretary at the CWU, said the ballot result had been achieved “despite a real culture of fear imposed by senior BT management.” He added that the industrial action was the first UK-wide call centre strike in UK history.
He said: “This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that no worker in the UK is unreachable, that all workers are ready to stand up and fight for higher pay and, in some cases, better conditions.”
At BT subsidiary Openreach, which maintains the UK’s internet infrastructure, the ballot saw a 75% turnout among 28,425 members with 95.8% voting for industrial action. Among CWU members employed by BT, including more than 10,000 call centre staff, 91.5% voted in favour from a turnout of 58%.
It’s going to be very difficult to get the economy growing again if working people cannot afford to spend in local shops and businesses” – Frances O’Grady, TUC
At EE, the mobile operator acquired by BT in 2015, the ballot failed to achieve the 50% turnout required to make the vote valid. The CWU said that the 2,000 members who voted was eight short of the number required, with 95.8% in favour of striking.
Ward gave BT bosses until the 8 July to return to the negotiating table with a “significantly improved offer” or be served notice of industrial action. The earliest a strike could be called is 14 days after BT is served notice.
BT chief executive Philip Jansen, who received a 32% pay rise last year to £3.5m through bonuses and share awards, has said the company cannot afford to sweeten its staff deal. BT made almost £2bn in profits for the year to the end of March, with shareholders receiving £700m in dividends.
A spokesperson for BT said: “Our job is to balance the competing demands of BT Group’s stakeholders and that requires careful management, especially in a challenging economic environment. The result of the CWU’s ballot is a disappointment.”
Union membership is ‘rocketing’
Meanwhile, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady has said the UK’s heavy-handed approach to industrial relations has backfired as employees reject its “nonsense” demands for pay restraint and increasingly join unions. She told Reuters that unions had seen interest about membership from workers “rocket” as the cost of living crisis gathered pace.
Last month saw rail workers, barristers, postal workers and managers, teachers, health workers and British Airways workers either take strike action or threaten walkouts.
O’Grady said the government was “spoiling for a fight” rather than seriously negotiate with workers.
“I think that’s backfired massively. I don’t think they’ve won public opinion,” O’Grady said.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get the economy growing again if working people cannot afford to spend in local shops and businesses.”
Trade union membership in Britain has roughly halved since the 1970s and hit a low of 6.2 million people in 2016, according to official estimates. As of 2021 it stood at 6.4 million.
“We’ve seen enquiries to join absolutely rocket,” O’Grady said. The TUC pointed to a seven-fold increase in visitors to its “find a union” web page since the rail strikes started.
“We had that extraordinary vote in Amazon New York for union recognition. And of course, we’ve seen the likes of Ryanair, Deliveroo, Uber – companies that we were told would never recognise a union have had to come to the table,” O’Grady said.