This year 62 500 British Telecom staff applied for voluntary redundancy--40
000 more than the company asked for. Andrew Calcutt spoke to some of those
who have been 'compulsorily retained'
Why was 'Please Release Me, Let Me Go' this year's hit song in the corridors
of British Telecom? Because 50 per cent of staff expressed an interest in
the company's voluntary redundancy package, Release '92.
In February and March, all 200 000 BT employees received a glossy brochure
advertising the benefits of Release '92. Aiming to slash the workforce to
135 000 by the end of 1994, the company expected that around 20 000 would
take voluntary redundancy this year. In the event, more than 100 000 said
they were interested; 62 500 applied; 46 000 pursued their applications.
Management allowed an extra 9300 applicants on to the scheme, but resentment
remains rife among those who were refused entry. Where there used to be
anger over compulsory redundancies, in BT this year there have been complaints
against 'compulsory retention'.
Why was Release '92 so heavily over-subscribed? With official unemployment
once again touching three million, it might seem extraordinary that so many
of those currently in work should be prepared to risk an indefinite stretch
on the dole.
Compared to most offers, Release '92 was a good deal: eight weeks' salary
for every year of employment; a bonus of up to 25 per cent of annual salary;
pay in lieu of notice. A senior clerical worker in his late thirties could
expect around £50 000 (£42 000 after tax). Many employees in their
mid-twenties received £15 000. Upwards of £4000 was the going
rate for staff with just a couple of years' service.
These are the sort of lump sums which most people can only dream about.
One clerical worker fondly remembered the cosy feeling of 'sitting at home
and working out what you were going to get'. He had been looking forward
to around £15 000. He also said that, looking back on it, it wouldn't
have stretched very far.
His £15 000 would go some way towards paying off the mortgage. Then
what? In the middle of a slump, he would have little prospect of another
job. Yet tens of thousands were willing to put themselves on the scrapheap
so long as they could escape the clutches of BT. That is a clear illustration
of how deeply people dislike their working conditions in these times of
strongarm management. It also shows how little they feel they can do to
alleviate their position at work. For many, Release '92 was not so much
a new lifeplan, more a barely plausible escape attempt.
'Most people would like to be able to pack their jobs in', said one engineer.
BT employees are particularly fed up with the current management strategy
which originated in the mid-eighties.
BT was privatised in 1986. In 1988-89, management started a campaign to
do away with 'the civil service attitude'. 'We had the introduction of total
quality management - TQM', recalled one employee. 'Targets all the time.
Constant emphasis on stringent financial controls. Overtime cut right back - you
had to get the work done during normal hours. Now there's a recruitment
freeze - nobody to replace colleagues who've left.'
'There have been three or four rationalisations in as many years', said
another BT worker. 'The last one was called Operation Sovereign. None of
these improve efficiency. But they result in new tasks and practically a
new job description along with new managers and increased workloads.'
BT managers are aware of 'low morale'. Last year's annual survey of employee
attitudes ('Care') made for miserable reading. The company's internal newsletter,
BT Today, reported that group managing director Michael Hepher is
not optimistic about the results of this year's survey: 'He believes, on
balance, the answers will be worse.'
To many staff, the worst influence on 'morale' is BT's attempts to raise
it. There is widespread contempt for management's campaign to develop a
company ethos. This includes workplace discussions on 'mission statements'
such as 'living our values, saying thank you', and 'first time, on time,
every time'. Male staff are encouraged to wear white shirts and grey slacks,
jokingly referred to as 'BT image clothes'.
BT workers reserved their most bitter contempt for the thousands of glossy
presentation packs sent out to staff. The posed pictures of BT workers apparently
captivated by 'our values', the 'saying thank you' commendation forms, the
jars of apricot preserve awarded to conscientious employees - these and other
management ploys produce hoots of derision rather than company loyalty.
The October issue of BT Today contained an angry letter complaining
that company freebies (£200 worth of shares, tickets to the theatre)
are no substitute for good pay. An engineer bemoaned 'derogatory pay rises--£204
plus three per cent this year, zilch compared to the company's huge profits'.
The belief is widespread that BT offered generous redundancy terms in an
attempt to offset resentment against its super-profits of £97 a minute.
Even Release '92 has rebounded against the company. A clerical worker explained:
'They started by saying nobody would be held back, then they said we couldn't
all go. A lot of people were told late - they'd made plans which they had
to abandon. There were horror stories of people buying air tickets and selling
houses, and then being turned down at the last minute.'
There are bitter rumours that nearly all managers who applied for redundancy
were allowed to go. Many workers believe they were penalised because of
a good work record: 'Blokes were getting on to the scheme because they had
bad records and the company wanted shot of them. So working hard for the
company made you worse off. This caused a lot of resentment.'
Many of BT's remaining staff are looking forward to next year's redundancy
scheme, although the terms are not expected to be as good. Some are wondering
whether 'a poor work record would put me in a better position. But how far
can you go before you get disciplined?'. Senior managers are not trusted.
There is talk of a 'hidden agenda'. 'You don't feel you have job security,
just general disaffection'.
Resentment, distrust, disaffection - these are traditional elements of the
employer/employee relationship. One aspect that is missing, however, is
the recognition on the employees' part that they could get organised together
to do something about it.
In September 1992 there was a four-to-one vote against taking action for
more pay. 'Industrial action', said an engineer, 'is giving the company
an excuse to get rid of you'. He remembered a round of victimisations in
April 1987. Another engineer said: 'There's fear your card will be marked
if you speak out of turn.' Many employees were apprehensive even about speaking
anonymously to Living Marxism.
The National Communications Union (NCU) has been largely discredited since
its strategy of dividing clerical and technical staff, and its obsession
with negotiating rather than fighting, scuppered the telecom engineers'
three-week strike in February 1987. Nowadays, say union members, it is 'more
like a service company offering discounts', or simply 'not discussed'.
Rather than talking to their members about how to defend wages and working
conditions, NCU officials have advertised their role in putting together
Release '92. Now even this has rebounded on the union, as thousands of its
members are angry about not getting the redundancy deal they were promised.
They might not admit it, but the NCU's own officials recognise how useless
the union is. The Release '92 intake included 60 branch officers and two
members of the NCU national executive. Many more are likely to have applied.
In a desperate attempt to offset falling membership, the NCU Journal
(October 1992) pleaded with ex-BT employees to maintain their connections
with the union.
For the time being, collective action doesn't figure much in the minds of
BT workers - hardly surprising given the mess the old unions made of it.
But that doesn't mean they have become middle class company men. They despise
management and feel contempt for the union. The only way they feel able
to show how fed up they are is to take the redundancy money and run with
it - for as long as it lasts.
A clerical worker who applied for redundancy had planned 'to go away for
18 months and hope the recession was finished by the time I got back'. He
had hoped to be on a beach in Australia this Christmas, and resented being
stuck in a BT office instead. As far as he could see, the only thing going
for him was his chance for a place on the next redundancy package - 'Release
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992