In the eye of the storm: interview with John Ferrett, BT and Digital national secretary

In the eye of the storm: interview with John Ferrett, BT and Digital national secretary

John Ferrett is used to being at the heart of the action. His more than 30 years’ experience as a union activist will serve him well in his new role of national secretary for the BT and Digital divisions.

“BT is in the eye of the storm, just like the BBC,” says John. “We are about to start negotiating the first pay deal for three years. It’s going to be challenging because BT is under a lot of pressure, including from the government to roll out universal broadband provision. 

“BT faces a £500m charge because of the Huawei decision and of late has had a fall in share price.”

Despite this, union membership provides the strongest hope of success. “Our members in BT have some of the best pay and conditions of similar jobs in the UK. That’s because we’ve always had a strong union presence. 

“We need to maintain our relevance to protect existing terms and conditions and win some decent ones for the new people coming in.”

BT relocation plans

Another challenge this year is BT’s plan to reduce its estate from more than 300 locations to around 30 within three to five years. Prospect wants BT to be much more transparent about these changes.

“Every employee will be affected and the current approach will heighten members’ uncertainty and increase anxiety. But we are keeping up the pressure,” says John.

“We have already given practical support to members affected by relocation from Swindon to Bristol.”

 The People Framework reorganisation that dominated 2019 led to thousands leaving thebusiness. John praises those Prospect reps and officers who worked so hard to ensure that people left on the best possible terms.

Ironically BT is still recruiting – but from a different demographic. “Our challenge is to recruit those young people coming in, many of whom know little about unions.”

Trade union roots

John himself left school at 16 and soon after became a forklift driver for a food distribution warehouse in Portsmouth, joining the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Within months he was on strike and on a picket line.

Later he became a forklift driver and picker for the Co-Operative Wholesale Society in Fareham, and was elected a shop steward for retail union USDAW.

“There was a dispute over a bonus system related to the speed at which orders were being fulfilled and we walked out over a weekend just before Easter 1989,” says John.

Unfortunately the dispute ended with dismissal for John and other colleagues.

“You can take one of two directions when something like that happens. I was married to Karen, with a huge mortgage and our first child Stanley (now 25) on the way. (John and Karen now also have Louise, 22, and Max, 20).

“That experience got me back into education and I started studying for A-Levels at nightschool. I found another job for a contractor supplying services to IBM, then for a civil engineering company and for a while at an archery company.

“These were not unionised environments but I studied hard and after A-Levels enrolled for the Open University.”

His studies led to a degree in politics and economics and another career change. John had considered joining the Immigration Service after becoming aware of the Yugoslav conflictand the Iraq war. He was also moved by the case of Joy Gardner, a Jamaican woman who died after being detained and restrained during a police immigration raid at her home in 1993.

John got a job at Gatwick and became active in the NUCPS union (later the PCS), holding several positions over the years. He spent a year on secondment delivering training on the Human Rights Act 2000.

In 2004 John was elected to a leading full-time union post representing people across theHome Office. He negotiated with senior civil servants and ministers, and worked alongside representatives from Prospect – leading to his next move.

Prospect hired him as a south-east negotiator in Chertsey in 2006. John’s responsibilities included members at Portsmouth naval base and the Maritime Coastguard Agency, where he won a major pay increase in 2016.

John was promoted to assistant national secretary in the BT and Digital division three years ago.

He has worked closely with members outside BT, at companies like Telefonica and Vodafone. “They, too, are experiencing huge changes,” says John. “They are moving from being telecoms companies to multimedia providers and we will be there for them.”

Whatever the challenges, members will be in safe hands for the bumpy ride ahead.