More than 40,000 CWU members who work for BT and Openreach are involved in the dispute, which was started when BT unilaterally imposed real-term pay cutbacks for all grades covered by the CWU.
This year, BT Group’s management made a significant break from the tried-and-true partnership approach to labor relations that had previously supported 35 years of industrial peace within the company. This year, BT abruptly ended the negotiations after just six brief meetings instead of adhering to customary negotiation procedures, which call for reaching a draft agreement that is reasonable and acceptable to both parties through discussions and then recommending it to the union’s membership for ratification.
In reality, the higher percentage going to the company’s lowest paid employees is illusory. BT argues the flat-rate settlement of £1,500 that it then imposed, without consent, translates to between 3.8% and 8% depending on where individuals sit on the pay scale. Because new workers had been given unagreed-upon pay rates that were only barely over the Real Living Wage, the company’s call centers were experiencing a recruiting and retention dilemma. Up to two thirds of the £1,500 increase had previously been paid out to solve this issue.
The CWU estimates that even the biggest recipients of this year’s mandated flat rate pay award have only got about 5%, with the vast majority of CWU-represented grades obtaining only a little over 4% and some below 3%. That contrasts with the spiraling inflation that caused the favored (usually lower) CPI measure of the Government to reach 10.1% in July (RPI 12.3%), and even the Bank of England predicted that CPI would reach 13% within months.
Members didn’t receive any consolidated pay increases in 2021, and even the settlement reached in 2020 was just barely over inflation. In fact, including the £1,500 mandated award for 2022, BT pay for CWU classes has climbed by just 6.6% since 2020. This indicates a real-terms wage loss since 2020 of 6.9% based on RPI and 2.8% based on CPI, assuming no change to the mandated £1,500 award. BT announced a £1.3 billion yearly profit, a £761 million dividend payment to shareholders, and a 32% salary raise for the CEO despite this.
In June, the CWU held the BT Group’s first corporate-wide industrial action ballot since 1987. Participants in Openreach, where 28,425 CWU members had the right to vote, achieved a staggering 95.8% “yes” vote for industrial action on a 74.8% turnout. Another impressive “yes” result of 91.5% was obtained in BT, where 10,353 ballots were distributed, on a turnout of 58.2%.