BT staff step up strike action as Virgin Media O2 offers pay rise

The union representing frontline staff at BT has launched a fresh round of strike action just as rival Virgin Media O2 announced a 10 per cent pay rise for its lowest-paid staff.

About 40,000 BT staff represented by the Communication Workers Union are set to strike on four days this month beginning on Thursday and for the first time since the industrial action started, 999 emergency call handlers are joining the walkouts.

“We’re never going to walk away from this,” said Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, adding that the anger is not “going to dissipate”.

The union is disputing a £1,500 pay rise offered to 58,000 frontline workers, including engineers, call centre staff and retail workers, across BT Group in April, which equated to an average 4.8 per cent pay rise at a time when inflation is around 10 per cent.

The CWU has highlighted the discrepancy between frontline workers’ pay and that of senior management, given that the chief executive received a 32 per cent pay increase in the last financial year, to £3.5mn, because of previous share awards.

On the same day as the CWU’s new wave of industrial action, Virgin Media O2 announced that it was planning to introduce a new £1,400 payment for employees earning £35,000 and under. Including a 3 per cent pay rise earlier in the year, and bonus payments, the new offer equates to a more than 10 per cent pay rise for the company’s lowest paid staff.

Last month, Sky also announced that it would be offering 70 per cent of its staff a fresh £1,000 “winter payment”. 

Andy Kerr, deputy general secretary of the CWU, responsible for telecoms, said that the Virgin Media O2 offer is “the kind of thing we’d be willing to look at” for BT staff.

The BT action comes amid a wave of public and private strikes across the UK, as staff struggle with the rising cost of living. About 115,000 staff at Royal Mail will be withholding their labour for several days across October and November, and British railway workers have continued their strike action throughout the week.

BT said in a statement last month that it was “profoundly disappointed that the CWU is prepared to take this reckless course of action by including 999 services in strikes”.

“We made the best pay award we could in April and we have held discussions with the CWU to find a way forward from here,” it said.

Ward said that the union had received some criticism for its decision to include 999 call centre staff in the latest round of industrial action, and said that he was conscious of the fact that striking members will be suffering from loss of pay.

“Taking strike action is very difficult during a cost of living crisis,” he said, adding that it was BT management, not the unions, that are being “the reckless ones”.

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