Staff at the UK’s largest telecoms group BT will decide on Thursday whether to go on strike for the first time in 35 years, joining a swath of employees across the country demanding higher pay as they face a severe cost of living crisis.
If the strikes go ahead, they are likely to cause some disruption to BT and EE customers around the UK, many of whom will be unable to have new phone and internet lines fitted or repaired, and will struggle to reach support staff on phone lines.
BT has been embroiled in a three-month dispute with the Communication Workers Union, which accuses management of introducing a low flat-rate pay rise despite soaring levels of inflation. The strike ballot, opened by the CWU on June 15, has canvassed 40,000 members who work across BT and its Openreach and EE subsidiaries.
The proposed BT strike action, which would not start before July 14, comes amid a spreading wave of worker unrest. As Britain was hit last week by its biggest rail strike for a generation, union leaders have warned that industrial action will spread across the public sector — to teachers, nurses and care workers — unless the government backs pay rises. Meanwhile, the CWU is also balloting 115,000 postal workers at Royal Mail about proposed strike action.
BT offered a £1,500 pay rise to 58,000 frontline workers in April, including engineers, contact centre staff and retail workers, equating to between 3 and 8 per cent depending on their base salary. It said this was the highest pay rise it had offered in 20 years.
The package was rebuked by the CWU, which pointed out that “recent uplifts to £20,000 for some of the company’s lowest-paid workers . . . count towards the £1,500 increase, and are deducted from it, meaning that for many the ‘headline’ increase . . is highly deceptive”.
Andy Kerr, CWU deputy general secretary, said: “In overall pay pot terms, the deal is worth around 4.8 per cent and we simply don’t believe that’s enough — especially after a pay standstill last year and the full-blown cost of living crisis we are now in.”
The UK’s inflation rate hit a 40-year high in May, reaching 9.1 per cent, amid rising food and fuel prices, and economists are predicting it will hit double digits by the autumn.
BT’s chief executive Philip Jansen received a 32 per cent pay increase to £3.5mn in the last financial year, due to bonuses and share awards. The CWU pointed out that this equated to 86 times average pay levels across the BT Group.
“Mr Jansen is personally benefiting from a 32 per cent rise in his overall remuneration package this year — while piously pontificating that a company that has just declared a £1.3bn profit cannot afford to scrape together enough to pay its workers a rise that even comes close to compensating for the rising cost of living,” the CWU said in a statement.
BT said in a statement: “It’s disappointing that the CWU has decided to ballot for industrial action without consulting its members on the outcome of our negotiations. If a strike takes place, nobody wins.”