Solidarity with CWU strikes

Assuming the Tory austerity agenda of the last 12 years didn’t affect your regular route, it feels a bit like waiting for a bus doesn’t it? You spend an age waiting for an organised fightback by workers for better pay and conditions, then suddenly loads turn up at once.

On 29th July and 1st August, 40,000 CWU members in BT and Openreach took strike action for the first time in 35 years and PCS members joined in solidarity with them on picket lines up and down the country. Solidarity on the picket line is important. It’s not just a photo-op for social media likes; it means that at a grassroots level we network and engage with workers in other sectors, we share ideas and experiences from current and past struggles. We listen and we learn, gauge public opinion – resoundingly in favour since you asked judging by the honking of horns and positive comments from passers-by.

It shows we have had their backs in this dispute and make no mistake, they will have our backs should we strike later.

Many of the struggles and grievances of CWU members are ours. Like many in PCS, CWU members were classed as key workers during the pandemic. None of what we did and still do would be possible without the hard work and dedication of CWU members. While we were working at home delivering benefits and furlough money, or processing DBS checks for job applicants, CWU members provided, maintained and delivered the infrastructure 24/7 to enable us to work remotely, to deliver pay and benefits, to check in on our loved ones remotely, to shop remotely, to “attend” funerals, to have Zoom quizzes! etc.

Like many of us in PCS they are also low paid with many claiming in-work benefits to get by. Like us they are fighting against real terms pay cuts in the face of rising inflation fueled by profiteering rather than wages and attacks on their pensions and demanding a 10% pay rise for workers which, like us, they deserve.

Last year, BT Group made a profit in excess of £1.3 billion which was more than enough to meet an inflation matching pay rise. What did BT do? They imposed a flat £1,500.00 pay rise for their workforce while their CEO, Philip Jansen, received a £3.5 million pay package, effectively a 32% pay rise. To add insult to injury, £700 million was paid out to shareholders. It is also reported that at least one BT office set up a food bank to assist employees, earning the CEO the nickname “Food Bank Phil”. A further £400m profit was announced for the first quarter of this year just hours before the second day of strike action. It is hardly surprising then that 95.8% of Openreach engineers and 91.5% of BT members voted for industrial action.

This is where I sound a note of urgent caution about what we can learn from our CWU friends. As you are probably aware, BT Group also includes the mobile phone giant EE who achieved union recognition in 2019. EE members were also balloted and a whopping 95.5% of them who voted were also in favour of industrial action. Unfortunately for them, they fell short of the 50% threshold by just 8 votes meaning they could not join their colleagues in BT and Openreach in taking strike action. They were crushed but galvanised and they will learn from this and so must we in PCS.

Some of our members are keen to get out of the blocks and ballot for strike action right now if not weeks ago. This is understandable but the simple truth is we are not ballot ready yet – individual branches and departments may be but this has to be a concerted and unified message to Government across the Civil Service. Anti-union legislation by successive Tory governments places bumps and barriers in the road such as postal ballots only for industrial action and the 50% turnout thresholds.

In our consultative ballot in March we may have sent a strong message to Government of our willingness to take industrial action for fair pay but turnout was 45.2 %. There is work to be done and currently there is a massive push within PCS to ensure member records are bang up to date with names, addresses, work locations and grades correct to maximise turnout in a postal ballot and fend off the risk of any legal challenges.

If I may stretch the earlier bus analogy a little further, the PCS bus is currently in the depot being serviced to ensure it is roadworthy and resilient but there is much to learn from the experience of EE. Among our membership are the tools and resources to do this so if a rep or branch official contacts you to update records, please be nice and confirm them. It could be the difference between having insulting pay deals imposed on us or reaching that 50% threshold that will force them to listen. The ballot opens on 26th September and closes 6 weeks later.

You can show your solidarity to CWU by emailing your MP courtesy of an easy to complete template which only takes a minute to complete (link below)

Dylan Wilson