Consultative ballot on strike action in Openreach as repayment planners signal their fury
Telecoms & Financial Services, Openreach September 8 2020
Tuesday 8th September 2020
A small but intensely loyal group of CWU members in Openreach has taken the unusual step of asking the union to register their willingness to take industrial action over unagreed changes to their grading and job description ahead of a formal industrial action ballot.
Incandescent over an autocratic and unilateral management decree on July 15 that the D1-graded Repayment Project Engineer (RPE) role was being ‘retired’ on September 1 – and that a new job description taking the role out of the NewGRID grading structure would then be imposed – the highly skilled engineers have been in uproar over what they regard as a dangerous ‘mismatch’ that places them on the lowest rung of the managerial ladder.
Originally given just 28 days to accept a paper ‘promotion’ to a Level E management role – one that reduces their annual leave and sick pay entitlements, adds a minimum of an hour and a half to their working week and debars them from membership of the the CWU-negotiated Hybrid Pension scheme, which retains valuable defined benefit elements – the 190-strong group have been pleading with their bosses to reconsider the addition of woolly and largely unexplained ‘project management’ responsibilities to their job description.
While the 28-day deadline was subsequently withdrawn – once it became clear that only a handful of the RPEs would willingly sign away the protections and right to CWU representation that come with being a team member grade employee – management then decreed, despite vehement CWU objections, that while the RPEs could opt to continue as D1’s, the unagreed new job description would still apply.
Both the union and its repayment planning members regard that move as diminishing the fundamental importance of the advanced engineering skills required to conduct a hugely complex and highly lucrative role for Openreach – typically where major external building projects require a complete rearrangement of the network. Crucially, that work involves a high level of technical understanding and expertise which inform detailed discussion with councils and major construction companies and their clients to ensure that Openreach doesn’t pick up the tab for costs that should rightly be borne by others.
Despite Openreach’s claims that the ‘project manager’ words in revised job titles would give the repayment planners more clout when arguing the case with hard-nosed third-party organisations, many RPEs have expressed heartfelt concerns that the formalising of ‘project management’ duties in job descriptions would focus responsibility on RPEs for the smooth-running of complex and potentially acrimonious multi-agency projects, even though significant elements of those projects fall outside of their direct ability to control.
Such concerns – made all the more poignant given that formal project management qualifications and experience have not formerly been required of those applying for what is first and foremost a role that requires an advanced level of engineering knowhow – have already prompted more than half of the affected group to express their anxieties in writing to management.
Last week, in response to a number of ill-judged and needlessly heavy-handed reactions to these letters by some managers, the CWU was forced to issue urgent advice to RPEs who had been rattled by reports of colleagues being aggressively questioned over the views they had honestly expressed in their communications to line managers.
Assistant secretary Davie Bowman explains: “Clearly managers have the right to discuss work matters with their direct reports – but we were deeply concerned that some RPEs had been left feeling profoundly uncomfortable with the manner in which the conversations were taking place and also the content.
“As such, we had no option but to issue categorical advice to our members that they should not get embroiled in any conversation which makes them feel uncomfortable, but instead to politely explain the matter is subject to a consultative process between the company and the CWU – and that if individual managers had an issue with that they should contact the appropriate employee relations manager and seek guidance.”
“Interestingly, I was then informed that some managers were accusing the CWU of telling its members not to speak to them – something that is patently and demonstrably untrue, as the company conceded when they were sent the actual words of our communication to members – but once again this illustrates how charged this whole issue is becoming.”
Deputy general secretary Andy Kerr agrees – pointing out that Openreach’s disgraceful treatment of repayment planners is symptomatic of a belligerent new management approach that is sweeping across the whole of BT Group.
Manifesting itself in different ways in different parts of the company – ranging from compulsory redundancies in Enterprise and Technology to attacks on grading, desk based roles and career progression elsewhere – the union’s response to an unprecedented onslaught of hostile management activity has been to launch a coordinated fight-back under the ‘Count Me In’ campaign banner.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the despicable way in which repayment engineers are being treated by Openreach is just another example of the unacceptable and deeply unattractive management muscle-flexing that we are seeing in other parts of BT Group,” Andy stresses.
“Here’s yet another group of workers who are being directly attacked in what seems to be a coordinated and deliberate attempt to coerce and browbeat a loyal and hard-working workforce that the company should be valuing instead of antagonising.
“Quite what the company thinks it is going to achieve by this disgraceful behaviour is anyone’s guess – but suffice to say the CWU will be challenging this dangerous new confrontational company approach to the workforce every inch of the way.
“As part of this fight-back I’d like repayment planners to know that they have myself, the T&FS Executive and the collective strength of the CWU squarely behind them.”
Under the consultative ballot that commenced last week in response to the demands of repayment engineers to express their fury and solidarity in a tangible and irrefutable way, just one question is being asked.
Namely: ‘In the event that the union obtains a ‘yes’ vote in a future ballot for industrial action – and in to achieve our aims regarding the grade and functions of the Repayment Project Engineer – are you willing to take part in official industrial action consisting of a strike?’
- The consultative e-ballot will close at noon on Friday September 11 – and the result will be announced shortly afterwards.