To strike or not to strike…

The big news today is the pincer movement on the union strike plans that Mark Thompson launched today. Backed up by the letter from senior BBC journalists, he raised two questions for staff to consider. Was this the right time to strike, when negotiations over CAB2011 are still underway? And was it right to target the Conservative party conference, and George Osborne’s speech announcing the result of the government’s spending review two weeks later? These are serious questions, worth examining in a bit of detail.

Is striking next week the right thing to do?

Let’s assume that the objective of strike action is to strengthen the unions’ hand in their negotiations with the BBC. Consider two possible scenarios. In one scenario, Mark Thompson’s efforts to undermine the strike are successful, the strike is weakly supported, and industrial action peters out. It’s pretty obvious this would be calamitous for any attempts to force further concessions out of the BBC. An emboldened Mark Thompson would push on with his proposals safe in the knowledge that the unions had shot their bolt, and they no longer had any ammunition left to fire. In the second scenario the strike gains overwhelming support, successfully achieves its objectives of taking programmes off air, with the threat of more to come. In this scenario the unions are clearly strengthened, they can go into negotiations with confidence, and Mark Thompson will know that more concessions will be required to gain peace.

In the end strikes are about power. The BBC has gone as far as it is prepared to go voluntarily. Now they are gambling that they’ve made enough concessions to weaken our resolve in fighting for our pension rights. There will be no more concessions until the strikes happen, because the BBC wants to test our determination. Only one thing can now persuade the BBC to make more concessions, and that is if they are convinced that our resolve is steadfast.

Finally, a word about the “targeting” of the Conservative Party. I confess to unease about this myself. Our battle is not with the Conservative Party, it is with an intransigent employer that is reneging on its promises. But at this point it is worth remembering how many cards the BBC holds when it comes to the timing of strike action. Strikes are most effective when they target live programmes, because these cannot be replaced with other, pre-recorded equivalents. Originally the strikes were planned to take the Last Night of the Proms off air. But the BBC cannily tabled it’s CAB2011 proposals just in time to ensure this strike action could no longer go ahead. Because the law mandates that strike action takes place within a maximum of 8 weeks of the strike ballot, the unions have few other targets to aim for.

I would place the blame for the strike dates on Mark Thompson’s shoulders. He knew that in delivering a new proposal that would need examination and consultation just before the originally planned strike dates, he would leave the unions with little option but to target the few remaining significant live events that occur before the strike mandate runs out. It is unfortunate that these are exclusively Conservative Party events. The unions should make every effort to explain that they view this as unfortunate. But ultimately this debate does not change the fundamental question at stake: are the BBC’s workforce prepared to make a sacrifice to strengthen the unions’ negotiating hand with the BBC?

In the absence of further concessions from the BBC, I’ll be on strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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