Engineers at telecoms giant BT are staging their first strike in 34 years.
Some 170 highly skilled engineers working for Openreach began the second day of a two-day strike on Thursday. The members of the CWU union are fighting an attack on pay and conditions.
Openreach bosses want to shift the engineers onto a managerial grade—with worse pay and conditions for new starters and without union recognition.
Graham Colk, the CWU’s Openreach regional coordinator for Wales and the Marches, told Socialist Worker, “The industrial action has been driven by the workers themselves.”
He added the workers had “solidarity all the way through” with a “virtual picket line” of up to 130 people on Wednesday morning. And over 400 attended an online rally that evening.
Graham said Openreach managers “think trade unions cannot respond when Covid is at its height. We’re proving them wrong”.
In contrast to the solidarity, the CWU said workers had faced “tacit intimidation” from managers.
One CWU member on a picket line in Newport, Wales, told Socialist Worker that a manager and security guard stood watching them, taking pictures. The picketers handed out leaflets to vans on their way into the site, causing a queue of traffic.
And the CWU said that managers had confronted workers with “uncomfortable one-to-ones and not-so-subtle hints at how individuals can ‘report for work while outwardly appearing to be striking’.”
The union said this “points towards growing company unease at a situation which is slipping beyond its control”.
On Wednesday’s virtual picket line, CWU member Ian Wilson said managers attitude had only made workers more determined. “Everyone’s come together over the last few months,” he said. “The management don’t understand how we’re all operating under once voice.”
The action is the first strike by BT engineers since 1987—and by any workers at BT since 1999.
They are fighting against management plans to bring in new contracts that will change the nature of the job.
The strikers are Repayment Project Engineers. Their job involves arranging for BT cables to be moved or protected during major building works, including by councils and the government.
Graham said workers viewed their job as a public service, and to “save the public—the tax payer—money” by finding the cheapest solution.
But the new contracts would mean lower salaries, topped up by a bonus based partly on money the workers make for the company. This would push them to find ways to make money for BT out of government building works, rather than the cheapest solution.
BT has promised existing workers will keep their terms and conditions. But new starters would begin with longer hours, no overtime, less sick pay and reduced annual leave.
Graham said that meant the strikers were “not just defending themselves, but the future for individuals coming into the business”.
It comes as workers across BT face similar attacks on their jobs and conditions—including the threat of compulsory redundancy.
Graham said, although a separate dispute, the engineers’ strike was “illustrative of the campaign”. It is against making people compulsorily redundant, closing lots of workplaces, and implementing changes to terms and conditions”.
The engineers are set to strike again between Wednesday and Friday of next week.