T&FS Conference – Day One

Telecoms & Financial Services, Union Matters

From cameras to crumbling workplaces

Telecoms & Financial Services (T&FS) Conference got off to a heady start yesterday, in addressing core concerns from workplace surveillance to crumbling buildings.

Opening the proceedings was deputy general secretary (T&FS) Andy Kerr, who described the concentration and seriousness with which this sector of the union deals with industrial relations in the 28 different companies we are recognised.

Reflecting on the 2022 BT Group dispute, he said that “that dispute did not to happen – we were forced into it by the company.

“It was made quite clear by the ex-CEO, Philip Jansen, that it was his way or no way.

“Well, it was not his way, at the end of the day.”

Had he stuck to decent industrial relations and listened to the veterans of BT management, Kerr reasoned, the fight would have never had to happen.

“I’ve worked with many CEOs in companies over the years, but Jansen was one of the worst.”

But Kerr went on to say how “proud” he was of BT members’ “united response” to the company.

“It showed quite clearly – and is a lesson to us – that if we stick together, we’d come out together and win – and win every time.”

Discussing the decision of the CWU’s national tech sector branch UTAW to integrate into the T&FS constituency, Kerr heaped praise upon them.

“The great thing about UTAW,” he said, “is the age of them – the vast majority of them are under 30 and that’ll continue to be the case.

“They are doing a phenomenal job of ensuring that our union stretches out into new sectors and are totally clear that the development of new technology must benefit workers as well as employers – and that extraordinary wealth should be shared, not just hoarded by billionaires.”

Workplace Respect

The morning was dominated by discussion over organising and overwork, with motions being passed calling for the reduction of working hours with no loss of pay, improvements in both home working arrangements and on-the-job conditions, as well as much more serious respect from management for BT workers.

Describing the overall social context while moving a motion, NEC member Jonathan Bellshaw said: “We’re in one of the worst living crises that I’ve known.

“Costs are going up and up, but pay’s not going up and up – and BT is a part of that issue.”

Claiming that workplace conditions at BT as becoming increasingly “Dickensian,” Jonathan pointed out that during the pandemic, workers were more trusted by management and “the system worked”.

Conference also discussed the need to fight for a shorter working week. Great Western Branch’s Josh Barclay said: “This is our next big fight and our next big win.

“Why should we have to work longer? Quite simply – why should we have to work longer?

“There is no justification for it, other than they want a little bit more of you to get a little bit more profit.”

We Won’t Be Spied On

A major discussion of the day was over workplace surveillance across the companies in which the CWU represent workers.

Moving a composite motion setting out the union’s opposition to inward-facing cameras and recording devices in work vehicles, Chris Brown from Northern Ireland Telecoms Branch said that the union is at a “crossroads” on this question.

“We must challenge the stark realities of relinquishing autonomy under the scrutinising gaze of AI.

“The allure of technological progress cannot blind us from protecting our fundamental human rights.”

Chris was one of several delegates who highlighted serious concerns over privacy, the potential for data breaches, and the “so-called infallibility” of these systems.

These questions, he said, “go unanswered” by bosses, and “the consequences could be dire.”

Delegates discussed widely about the feelings of anger and intrusion that such proposals have engendered amongst workers, as well as the potential for industrial action over these impositions.

Running through the facts and data, NEC member Andy Mercer said that “our members saw straight through” the attempts of Openreach to introduce these cameras, and how, after the union communicated what the proposals were to members, company bosses withdrew them after six days.

“Our opposition is clear,” he said, “we will not allow our members to be spied upon.”

Crumbling, unfit facilities

A widespread discussion was also had about the poor state of BT’s physical infrastructure, with dozens of delegates discussing the often dreadful nature of BT environments.

This includes facilities where buildings are crumbling, there are little to no amenities, and where toiletries are not provided.

Summing up the anger of delegates, national officer Tracey Fussey said: “In many cases around us, the grey cold environments we work in are falling to pieces.

“We are also seeing a complete lack of appropriate facilities for women workers – we shouldn’t be having to have this debate. This should not be a problem that exists.”

While acknowledging the union’s willingness to talk to BT, Fussey also pointed out that branches have a nationally agreed escalation process with the employer that may need to start emerging if the problems persist.

Delegates also discussed the problem for women workers, with North East delegate Kay McCann saying: “I don’t work in a shiny building with tea, coffee and nice toilets as a field engineer.

“I find it telling that throughout my entire training, my female colleagues were comparing the best portaloos.

“This is not a situation we should ever be in.

“Nor should we be in a situation where a colleague of mine with bladder problems was called aside for ‘frequenting supermarkets too often’.

“It’s about listening to female colleagues.”

Summing up a motion addressing these questions, NEC member Kate Walsh said: “BT and Openreach pride themselves on their diverse, inclusive force in an industry that has been white and very male dominated.

“However, there are fewer exchange buildings, and subsequently fewer places to use the toilet.

“The lack of hygiene and cleanliness is penny-pinching gone mad, and the need for these facilities to be kept to reasonable standards must be urgently addressed.

“It is unacceptable, especially for a blue-chip company boasting of its successes recruiting female engineers – but then refusing to provide proper, hygienic facilities.” 

The rise of UTAW

There was also a fascinating in-camera discussion by UTAW branch chair John Chadfield about the national situation facing tech workers organising in a huge array of workplaces across the country.