BT strike ballot dropped amid legal worries

The Communication Workers Union has cancelled a strike ballot affecting over 50,000 BT staff after a flurry of letters from BT that the union said came to a legal challenge

BT has been reprieved from the threat of imminent strike action by thousands of its employees, following the cancellation on Monday evening of a ballot for industrial action.

The Communication Workers Union, which represents over 50,000 of the 96,000 staff at the telecommunications and services company, stopped the poll because of legal fears. It said a series of letters sent to the union by BT effectively amounted to a legal challenge to the proposed strike.

"The ballot has been cancelled following legal advice which clearly outlined that under the notoriously restrictive trade union laws in the UK, certain technical breaches would potentially invalidate the ballot," said the Communication Workers Union (CWU) in a statement on Monday. "On taking legal advice regarding the questions put to the union by BT, the decision to cancel the ballot was taken on Monday 5 July."

"We're bitterly disappointed... and of course it doesn't help to resolve the outstanding issues over pay which we have with BT," said Andy Kerr, deputy general secretary for the CWU, in the same statement.

Neither the union nor BT commented on the basis for the legal challenge. The Financial Times reported that people familiar to the situation said the CWU was unable to supply workplace addresses for some of its members in the ballot, which meant that BT might have been able to get an injunction against a strike.

The BT staff represented by the union — over half the telco's workforce — could have gone strike as early as 12 July, depending on the outcome of the ballot. It would have been the first national strike against BT since 1987 and would have involved mainly call centre staff and engineers.

The CWU warned in a June statement that a strike could "cause severe disruption across BT services, including the provision of information to major customers, the laying and maintenance of phone and broadband lines and handling customer service and business calls."

Union members are unhappy over proposed pay increases, cost savings, and executive pay and bonuses, a spokesperson for the CWU told ZDNet UK.

Initially, BT offered staff a two-percent pay rise this year, with a bonus of between £250 and £500, depending on company performance, but with no guarantee that there would not be compulsory redundancies. In reponse, the union asked for an increase of five percent, noting that this was at the level of inflation. The CWU also pointed out the financial packages received by the likes of BT's chief executive Ian Livingston, who took home 79 percent more in pay and bonuses in the year to 31 March 2010, compared with the previous 12 months.

After the union started moves toward strike action, BT changed its offer to a pay rise of two percent in 2010, followed by an increase of three percent in 2011, plus the bonus. In addition, the company promised not to make any compulsory redundancies among what it calls 'direct BT staff' in 2010 or 2011.

BT said it was pleased the ballot had been withdrawn. "There were procedural issues regarding the ballot that we raised from the start, and the union have now accepted this to be the case," the company said in a statement on Monday. "Our door remains fully open to the union, and so we hope we can sit down and resolve this matter."

The CWU said it would attempt to re-open the ballot in the future, but would meanwhile re-enter negotiations with BT.

"We will take all necessary steps to allow us to re-ballot our members as soon as is practically possible. In the meantime, we will also be taking up an offer from BT for a meeting to see if there is a way to resolve this dispute without the need for industrial action," the union said in its statement.

Comments on a Facebook page set up by the CWU showed some BT workers were dismayed at the derailment of the ballot, with some suggesting that voluntary redundancies could have affected the running of the poll.