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31 March 2021

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BT Openreach engineers step up the pressure with five-day strike action

Picket line in Swansea. Photo: Socialist Party Wales

Picket line in Swansea. Photo: Socialist Party Wales   (Click to enlarge)

Dave Reid Socialist Party Wales

Engineers working for BT's Openreach have taken five days of strike action against the imposed regrading of their jobs.

A newly aggressive management at BT is attempting to force the 170 repayment project engineer (RPE) workforce to move to new management grades that would undermine their terms and conditions, put their jobs at risk and make them much more dependent on a bonus structure that would incentivise them to charge public projects much more for services.

RPEs arrange for BT cables to be moved or protected when construction projects take place, like a new road or building.

At the moment, RPEs view their job as a public service by finding the cheapest solution for customers to shape the work in a way that minimises their costs. But if they are put on a lower wage with a management bonus scheme then they would be expected to provide the service in a way that maximises the profit to Openreach.

As the Newport pickets explained: "For example, instead of advising the council to move a kerb on their plans to reduce the need for expensive telecom engineering work, we would be encouraged in the future to ensure that Openreach carries out work that would unnecessarily cost the council thousands, but create business for the company."

BT has claimed that current workers would keep existing terms and conditions, but new starters would start with longer hours, no overtime, less sick pay and holidays. And strikers believe that, as has been shown time and again across British industry, this is the thin end of the wedge: "Once 50%+1 of the workforce are on the new contracts then they will try and force the existing workforce onto them too."

The company has claimed that workers will be better off, but during negotiations the boss admitted that if she was in their position she would not want the new regrading either.

The strike has an added importance because 40,000 workers are currently being balloted for strike action across the whole of BT, including Openreach and EE, against compulsory redundancies, attacks on terms and conditions, and site closures that would force workers to travel long distances to work. Other Openreach workers are regular visitors supporting the picket lines as they themselves prepare for the ballot.

The morale of the majority of strikers on the picket line is high, despite managers trying to intimidate them with petty attacks. Communication Workers' Union members inside the Newport building have been reprimanded for bringing cups of tea to the strikers!

The strike continues on 29-31 March.

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Article dated 31 March 2021

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