CWU Hits Out at Openreach Separation Plans

Andy Kerr, Deputy General Secretary at CWU, has issued a strongly worded defence of the continued full integration of Openreach within BT Group recently, with a hard-hitting 10-point rebuttal to the joint call for separation by the bosses of Sky, Talk Talk and Vodafone UK.

In their public letter to the Ofcom chief executive Sharon White, Jeremy Darroch (Sky), Baroness Harding (Talk Talk) and Jeroen Hoencamp (Vodafone UK) urged the regulator to recommend the splitting up of BT, claiming that separation was “crucial to the improved digital connectivity Britain needs.”

But Andy, the CWU’s deputy general secretary (telecoms), has detailed a 10-point rebuttal, in which he explains how breaking up BT would “restrict broadband coverage and undermine quality of service improvements.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that Sky, Talk Talk, Vodafone UK, and indeed any other telecoms provider, will commit anywhere near the required levels of investment to deliver a world class network right across the country,” he points out.

If separation is recommended by the regulator, the CWU is committed to “push the button” on a determined national campaign, both politically and industrially, to stop the breaking up of BT.

In response to this CEO of the FCS Chris Pateman has stated:

“We want to see an improved, more flexible Openreach. And we believe that can best be achieved by de-coupling the infrastructure business from BT’s resale businesses — in much the same way energy production has been de-coupled from energy retailing.

None of the five parties to the 10-point plan has suggested Openreach employees are the cause of our problems: our arguments are with stodgy, top-down corporate management thinking and poor customer responsiveness. We want to see Openreach’s engineers empowered to use their skills and experience in the field to fix customers’ problems. And we believe the only way to achieve this is to force a change in corporate culture.

Considering the first responsibility of the CWU is to its members, it’s a pity to see the union so philosophically aligned with the BT status-quo. It’s particularly worrying to see a progressive, 21st century trade union arguing that a sustainable future can be built upon forcing a single ‘anchor tenant’ customer to buy your service no matter what. We believe the future prosperity of Openreach’s workforce depends upon creating a lively, responsive and agile organisation which can compete to meet all its customers’ needs.

The UK’s industrial relations landscape is littered with the wreckage of industries — from mining and shipbuilding to the tragedy of today’s steel industry — whose managements and unions colluded to try and maintain outmoded business structures well beyond their sell-by dates. We really can’t afford the same thing to happen in comms.

We had hoped the CWU’s response to our 10-point plan would contain an analysis of the likely effect on Openreach workers’ conditions and morale. We have our own views on this, and we know at least some of them are shared by a proportion of Mr Kerr’s members. Instead, we have a series of largely unsubstantiated comments and speculations that sound more like something from BT Corporate Affairs.

We are told, for example, that separating Openreach “will restrict broadband coverage and undermine quality of service improvements.” But with no explanation how present and projected levels of broadband coverage are functions of Openreach’s corporate ownership model.

All the signatories to the 10-point plan want to see a successful, prosperous and responsive Openreach with happy and well motivated employees and contented customers. We have not seen this under the present corporate structure; indeed, we do not believe it is possible under the present corporate structure. So we are proposing some changes which we believe can deliver real results with minimal disruption. All business life is change. We very much hope Mr Kerr and his members will join us in working to delivering that change.”

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine