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Release me

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.

Then what?

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'.

Apricot preserve

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.'

Hidden agenda

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.

'Release '93'

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 '93'.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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