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BT staff head for strike as new Winter of Discontent looms

BT staff head for national strike – as new Winter of Discontent looms: Rolls-Royce, British Gas and BA also face strife over cuts in pay and jobs

Thousands of BT employees are ramping up plans for a national strike for the first time in nearly 30 years as Britain faces a wave of industrial unrest this winter. 

It is understood that 45,000 workers canvassed across BT and its Openreach and EE arms are largely in favour of a formal vote on industrial action early next year. 

An initial ‘consultative’ ballot closes on Thursday and one union source said: ‘We are on course for a massive ‘yes’ vote. This is going to be a thumping victory.’ 

Empty: It is understood that 45,000 workers canvassed across BT and its Openreach and EE arms are largely in favour of a formal vote on industrial action

BT’s staff would join more than 12,000 workers at major firms including British Airways, RollsRoyce and British Gas owner Centrica in striking or threatening industrial action over Christmas and into the New Year. 

BA will tomorrow learn whether 850 cargo workers will strike before Christmas, while on Wednesday around 30 Eddie Stobart lorry drivers will close a ballot over strikes over its Walkers Pepsico contract. If they take action, retailers could face shortages of Walkers crisps and Pepsi drinks in the run-up to Christmas. 

The tension between trade unionists and some of Britain’s biggest businesses raises the prospect of a ‘winter of discontent’ similar to the unrest during 1978-1979. Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, last night warned that working people ‘have had enough’ of cuts to jobs and pay. He accused bosses of using the Covid-19 crisis as a smokescreen to ‘force through long-held plans to cut workers’ pay and conditions’. 

‘This year has seen bumper growth in bad bosses with ‘resign or be sacked’ threats being dished out right, left and centre, driving down wages despite workers doing their absolute best for this country through two lockdowns,’ he added. But exasperated bosses say they are only trying to survive the Covid lockdown or modernise to adapt to changes in customer behaviour. 

Centrica – which faces strikes by 10,000 workers from New Year’s Eve after a ballot closes on December 17 – said its plans to cut up to 5,000 jobs and change working conditions such as holiday leave and sick pay are not related to the pandemic, and there will be no changes to base pay or pensions. The row at BT centres on chief executive Philip Jansen’s attempts to overhaul the company and modernise its infrastructure, cutting 13,000 jobs and shuttering offices in a bid to find £2billion in cost savings each year.

He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘We are going from 300 buildings to 30 so we are shutting 270 in five years. Inevitably, there are some [staff] where we won’t be able to meet their [job] expectations and we want to treat people fairly and carefully.’ 

Last Tuesday, 1,000 workers at Heathrow started the first of four days of strikes this month over changes to pay and conditions – the first time its directly employed workers have gone on strike in the airport’s history. Boss John Holland-Kaye said the shake-up was designed to save jobs and described the strikes as ‘astonishing’. 

Rolls-Royce last night urged workers at its Barnoldswick factory in Lancashire to reconsider the daily strikes they’re holding until Christmas Eve over plans to move production of jet engine blades to Singapore.