Today in London’s radical history: BT workers strike, 1987

26th January 1987: About 117,000 British telephone engineers began a nationwide strike, called by the National Communications Union after British Telecom rejected a union demand to reinstate engineers suspended during a dispute over pay and working conditions. Management said there will be no change in its pay-raise offer, ranging from 5% to 5.8%. The union demanded a 10% increase.

The strike caused widespread disruption to telephone services, and threatened BT with heavy financial losses if no early end to the dispute – over pay and working conditions – was found. There was solid support for the strike. In some areas management accused ‘hotheads’ of sabotaging equipment, with cables severed & public telephones removed. In Rotherham emergency services were maintained, after the phone system developed faults, by emergency vehicles touring the streets.

British Telecom formed the communications network privatized by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government two years previously, a jewel in the 1980s privatisation program that partly fuelled the boomtime of financial capitalism in the UK in the late 80s.

A root cause of the strike was the huge profits the newly privatised network had been making: pre-tax profit was over 1 billion in 1986, and BT’s workforce, 85 percent of whom were shareholders, decided to demand a bigger share of the proceeds.

One group of workers demanded a “flexibility deal” of about 4.5 percent. Other workers wanted rises on top of this, and Telecom’s management decided to resist these calls for sharing the takings…

At the outset of the strike, telephone engineers, demanding a 10 percent pay rise, refused to work: phone repairs went undone. Later BT clerical workers, who process BT’s telephone bills, went on a three-day strike in support of the engineers.

The initial effect of the stoppages was to cause a moderate amount of disruption to phone traffic, especially at first between London and other cities. Later international calls were affected.

At one point, the newly computerized City of London, venue for vital financial transactions, appeared to be in danger of suffering major communications failures.

Telecom managers said that although a big effort had been made to modernize the network since privatization, trade union activity in BT remained intense. Privately, they said that a program of cuts in manpower had been only partly successful. The company’s initial hard line was regarded as a test of privatisation backed by the anti-union stance of the government. BT was dead set on its ability to push through post-privatization measures that would produce ‘more efficient’ practices – ie reducing its workers’ autonomy and squashing unionisation.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

More on this story to come, on February 11th…

 

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