Tens of thousands of telecoms workers have voted to strike in what could be the next major battle over pay. CWU union members working in BT Group—BT, Openreach and EE—all voted overwhelmingly for strikes. They are furious after bosses imposed a pay increase of £1,500 without any agreement from the union. For every worker, that’s a real terms pay cut.
The vote—in three separate ballots—shows workers in every section want to strike. In Openreach, workers voted by 95.8 percent to strike on a 74 percent turnout and in BT by 91.5 percent on a 58.2 percent turnout.
Workers in EE voted by 95 percent for strikes but fell eight votes short of meeting the 50 percent turnout threshold demanded by anti-union laws. Each result shows there’s widespread anger over pay among BT workers—and a readiness to fight.
“We always knew it was going to be a landslide in Openreach,” Eugene Caparros, a CWU rep in South Wales, told Socialist Worker. “People are outraged at the way they’ve been treated over the last couple of years. The members are still angry at not being given a pay rise last year.
“Had the company given them one maybe they could have settled this—but they’ve always got their hands in our pockets.”
And Jonathan Young, a rep in south London, Surrey and North Hampshire, told Socialist Worker, “This is massive. Our members believe that if push comes to shove they can’t afford not to go on strike. Now we have to prepare for it.”
Speaking immediately after the ballot results were announced, CWU general secretary Dave Ward slammed BT bosses for raking in profits while holding pay down. “BT posted profits earlier this year of £1.3 billion, and they also paid out £700 million to their shareholders,” he said.
He added that BT chief executive Philip Jansen’s earnings had increased by over 32 percent to a point where he’s now earning over “3.5 million a year.” And he noted that BT had put prices up by 10 percent. “So these people are partly the cause of spiralling inflation, not workers.”
He said union leaders would demand BT bosses give workers a “substantial pay rise”—though he wouldn’t say what that would mean. Instead, he said he wanted “senior management to come back to the table.”
Ward said there wouldn’t be a “knee jerk reaction from the union”, but also said the union could call action by the end of next week. That’s if bosses didn’t confirm “they’re willing to set aside the imposition of pay and come to the table with a significantly improved offer.”
Deputy general secretary Andy Kerr added that, though BT’s pay offer “was not enough, really the biggest issue was the imposition of it.”
Eugene said that on BT’s own online platform for its employees, workers had posted with the hashtag “10 percent and nothing less.” “That’s what many people are saying,” he said. “The union won’t pick a figure because you can’t negotiate if you have hard lines set down. But we do need something in line with inflation.” He added, “The ball’s firmly in the company’s court.”
BT workers shouldn’t accept an improved offer if it’s still below inflation, even if it’s agreed with the union rather than imposed. In a similar dispute last year, Kerr backed away from action after a deal. It put union officials “back in the room” with bosses, but which left many union activists angry.
This time there needs to be a fight—with strikes called immediately to put the pressure on bosses, not used as bargaining chips and talks. And the union should also be prepared to defy the unjust anti-union laws and call its members in EE out anyway.
Kerr himself said that “had we balloted now” with “the two or three hundred extra members who joined in the past couple of weeks we would have got it.” “Those 200 or 300 members joined because they wanted to vote, they wanted to vote yes,” he said.
It would be wrong if Tory anti-union laws were allowed to stop those low paid workers from fighting. Eugene said workers in South Wales were already preparing for strikes. “We’re going to have mass pickets across South Wales if action is called,” he said. “We’re just waiting for Andy Kerr to fire the starting pistol.”