UK: BT Group workers stage second day of nationwide strikes


40,000 members of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) at BT and its subsidiary Openreach staged a second day of strike action on Monday, following a 24-hour strike last Friday, the company’s first national strike in 35 years.

Workers are demanding a substantial pay rise after BT imposed a pay rise of just £1,500 on 58,000 of its frontline staff, a 3-8% increase depending on pay. This represents a significant reduction in wages in real terms, as the annual RPI inflation was 11.1% at that time. It has since climbed to almost 12%.

BT workers on the picket line at Dial House in Salford [Photo: WSWS]

The strike was strong again with hundreds of picket lines set up in towns and cities across the UK. As was the case during last week’s railway workers’ strikes, the striker received widespread support from the general public, with passing cars honking their horns.

Talk to World Socialist Website journalists, workers on the picket lines have made clear their determination to fight back against BT’s offensive to cut wages and reduce working conditions for workers, including by hitting new entrants.

The company is launching unprecedented attacks on its workforce even as it lavishes tens of millions of dollars in salaries and bonuses on its top executives. BT CEO Philip Jansen has been recruited by payment processor Worldpay. On joining BT, Jansen would have received a payment of £43m due to his substantial stakes in Worldpay, which had agreed to a £32bn merger.

BT raked in £1.3bn in profits last year and paid out over £700m to its shareholders. It has already made £400million in after-tax profits for the first quarter of this year. Jansen’s salary at BT rose 32% to £3.5m in the last financial year as a result of his share awards.

In talks since last November, in anticipation of annual compensation to be agreed in April, the CWU got nothing from a company determined to protect its profits at all costs. After securing a huge strike vote mandate from its members, the union claimed that a combination of pressure on BT shareholders and limited strikes would force the company to negotiate a pay deal.

A Doncaster union official told a WSWS reporter that the purpose of the strike was to bring the company “back to the table”. We are open to negotiate until the end. BT walked away from those conversations and they have now said there will be no more conversations.

No additional strike days were named by the union, with the official saying when asked if more stoppages would be announced: “We just want to get through today. We are open to negotiation.

The CWU has not changed course despite CEO Jansen saying in the pages of the FinancialTimes last week that as far as he is concerned, there is nothing to negotiate. The FT reported: “When asked if he would consider increasing the pay rise offered to more than 50,000 frontline workers in April, Jansen replied: ‘Why would I do that?.. This is history. It is done.'”

Rather than mobilizing all action, coordinated with the hundreds of thousands of its other warring members at Royal Mail and the Post Office, to defeat employers bent on impoverishing their workforce, the CWU has made the BT a dispute over the intransigence of the single individual—Jansen.

Dubbing him “Foodbank Phil” after food banks that have been opened at several BT sites to serve the workforce, so low are their wages, the union tweeted on Monday, “Members of BT and Openreach (and all the supporters heading to the picket lines tomorrow)—don’t forget to bring donations for the local food bank.We can expose the actions of Foodbank Phil Jansen and help local communities at the same time.

It’s a miserable call. Jansen will not be embarrassed because neither he nor his fellow shareholders nor the Conservative government have any qualms about working people being pushed into food bank dependence. The Tories have actually hailed them as proof of Britain’s ‘community spirit’, with several MPs posing for photo ops as new food banks opened in their constituencies.

In the scores of more than 90% of strike mandates, including at BT and Openreach, the working class demands a struggle to end food banks, not stockpile them, and have the power to do so. But it is hampered by the corporatist unions which seek a partnership with employers.

The CWU combines its appeals to BT shareholders with equally failed appeals to the Labor Party and its leader Sir Keir Starmer, like the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union.

Last Friday, CWU Deputy General Secretary Andy Kerr said of the Labor MPs: “They should be a little louder; they should be on the picket lines… The Labor Party must be seen as supporting the working people. Our concern is to put Labor back in power. If Keir doesn’t understand this, that he has to go out and fight for the working class of this country, we will never return to power… If there ever was a need for strong Labor leadership, it is now.

Kerr was picked up on Sunday by ASLEF leader Mick Whelan, whose train drivers went on strike on Saturday. Speaking on LBC radio, he said of Starmer: ‘I know that in general he supports the workers. And usually he has a policy that when Labor is in power after 12 years of destruction of the economy by the current government, he talks about growth and green transition. Summing up the union bureaucracy’s relationship with the Labor leader, he said it was ‘mostly cordial, sometimes restless – we are strong critical friends’.

Starmer and Labor are just as fiercely hostile to working class interests as the Tories. The Labor leader has repeatedly opposed the strikes this summer, saying that “the Labor Party in opposition must be the Labor Party in power. And a government doesn’t picket, a government tries to settle disputes.

Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer delivers his speech at the party’s online conference, September 22, 2020 [AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo]

After threatening Labor shadow ministers with disciplinary action, Starmer sacked shadow transport minister Sam Tarry last week after attending a railway picket.

Tarry’s sacking exposed Labour’s right-wing anti-working class politics so well that shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy was reportedly given ‘Sir Keir’s permission’ to pay a token visit to a BT picket line in his Wigan constituency on Monday. However, the claim that she had permission is vigorously disputed by forces close to Starmer’s office, the Guardian reported. Starmer’s office said Tarry was not fired for attending a picket line but for “inventing clog policy”. Tarry’s “crime” in this scenario was to oppose wage deals below inflation.

Starmer’s dictate has nonetheless been widely respected by Labor MPs, with only a minority picketing in recent weeks, confirming the party’s inherently pro-business character and the impotence of the Labor ‘left’.


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