Strike threat to BT Wireless sell-off

Unions talk about staging a walkout at BT, but the telco giant isn't taking the idea very seriously

BT has been threatened with strike action that would cripple its operations unless it agrees to suspend the demerger of its mobile division.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) is concerned that the separation of BT Wireless from the rest of the telco will result in job losses. It is lobbying both senior management and BT shareholders, and hopes to persuade the company to pause the demerger, and reconsider its options.

The CWU represents around 80,000 BT workers, and Jeannie Drake, general secretary of the CWU, warned on Thursday that it could call a strike if BT insisted on going ahead with the demerger. "We want to win this argument by open debate but there will come a point at which the union will have to protect its members in Wireless," Drake said, adding that the CWU would consider industrial action if it felt its members' interests could be threatened.

Admitting that such a strike would bring its business to a standstill, a BT spokeswoman told ZDNet that it wasn't taking the threat from the CWU very seriously. "If the union is really planning industrial action then they've got to contact us and let us know. We're in constant dialogue with the CWU, but they've not given us any formal warning about a possible strike," she said.

The spokeswoman also claimed that BT staff were unlikely to support strike action. "Our employees are very keen on this demerger. They support it because they want to see the company moving forward."

BT announced plans to split off its mobile division earlier this year, in a move widely seen as an attempt to reassure investors. Having paid big money for 3G licences, and made some expensive acquisitions, the telco was carrying a debt of nearly £30bn.

By selling off some assets it has brought this figure down, and the CWU believes this means it should reconsider the Wireless demerger -- which the union claims was only proposed as a way of generating cash.

But BT insists that there's no chance of a change of policy. "We're going to continue going full steam ahead with the demerger. The process is in its advanced stages, and we're in important talks with financial institutions," explained the spokeswoman.

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