Concession… or is it?

November 11, 2010

Today’s Media Guardian carries a story suggesting that Mark Thompson is prepared to concede a key point: namely to re-open negotiations if the deficit is revealed to be below £1.5 billion when the valuation is completed at the end of March next year. The BBC is portraying this as a “clarification” rather than a concession, but given the steadfast insistence up until now that it would not re-open negotiations unless the deficit fell below £1 billion, it looks like a concession to me.

But, it may still be less than it looks. If the current deal is implemented at the end of November as currently planned, then the idea that meaningful negotiations can be had in March/April looks like a fantasy. Many people might already have signed up for CAB2011, so the BBC would have a ready made argument to kill any further negotiation. The key is this: will the BBC suspend implementation of the current deal until the deficit is revealed? If not, then the offer to hold further talks if the deficit falls below £1.5 billion is an empty offer.

One thing it does make clear: strikes work. The new offer is being made conditional upon the union calling off the strikes on Monday and Tuesday. Thompson is clearly rather more desperate to avoid further strike action than his uncompromising emails to staff would suggest. The temptation for the NUJ must be – now they have discovered his pressure point – to push a little harder. The risk is that the members may not follow.


The long haul

November 8, 2010

The BBC is setting itself up for the long haul, hoping that the strikes will eventually lose momentum.

Mark Thompson’s letter today, and Lucy Adams’ appearance on the Today programme both rely on the argument that because they’ve made a deal with the other unions they can’t now re-open negotiations. What nonsense! The other unions very reluctantly voted to accept the deal – their members would be only too happy to see the issue re-opened if it would lead to a better deal.

The NUJ’s case is simple and powerful: wait until we know the full size of the deficit before any decisions are taken about how it should be plugged. That’s a reasonable, sensible, moderate demand. The BBC wants to force us to make a decision before the full facts are known because it fears that its negotiating position will be substantially weakened when the true size of the deficit is revealed.

It’s now critical that the next strike is solid. Mark Thompson needs to know that our resolve more than matches his own. He may not want to back down, but there are people at the top of the BBC who could force his hand if the dispute drags on. Inflicting week after week of disrupted services on the audience when all the union is asking for is that a decision is delayed until the full facts are known will be a harder and harder position to sustain.

The Telegraph gets it spectacularly wrong

November 7, 2010

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an editorial that puts forward a rather curious and at times dishonest set of arguments.

Once again it advances the argument that our defined benefit schemes are more generous than the defined contribution funds found in most of the private sector. But in a slightly surprising turn,  it then castigates defined contribution pension funds, suggesting that they are unreliable and a rip off. You might think that made a pretty good case for defending our defined benefit pensions. But instead the editorial then shifts the argument: it suggests that the only reason the public sector can stick with defined benefit schemes is because the taxpayer stands behind them. Of course, this is simply not true at the BBC: our pension scheme has its own fund (currently in deficit). So for its own rhetorical purposes the Telegraph has lumped us in with unfunded public sector pensions.

This matters for an important reason. Our pension fund is NOT in crisis (contrary to the BBC’s pronouncements). It has a deficit, and there are plenty of alternative ways that this deficit could be eliminated, without the brutal reduction in pension provision that the BBC is suggesting. Indeed, there is compelling evidence that retaining the existing benefits would cost about the same as the changes the BBC has suggested. The BBC refuses to engage with these figures (although it is my understanding that the NUJ is considering whether to get a professional analysis of the pension fund deficit).

Mark Thompson gets his revenge…

November 5, 2010

…on Helen Boaden. She’s been forced to go and report the news herself.

Thompson himself seems to be keeping a low profile.

Meanwhile the Telegraph’s report gets in a couple of snide digs. You have the feeling with the Telegraph (and the Mail) that they believe workers in the public sector should really not be paid at all. The Telegraph comments that the BBC offer would still leave us with pensions that are better than many in the private sector. They don’t mention that our salaries include a significant discount to the private sector – a discount that we eventually get back (or at least partly get back) on retirement. (Anyone who doesn’t believe in this discount simply has to compare freelance rates with in house salaries – something my job involves all the time. The gap is usually around 20%.) It’s also important to stand up against those who continually argue for a leveling down in benefits: just because others have been forced to accept dramatic cuts to their pensions, that doesn’t mean we have to as well.

First day of strike action

November 5, 2010

It’s hard to talk about taking programmes off air as a success, but that is now the only weapon we have left. So the first day of strike action looks like a success; most of the main programmes (eg Today) off air or drastically cutback. Some of the big names also on strike.  It’s only the start – I can’t see any change in the BBC’s position until at least the next batch of strikes go ahead. But the first hurdle has been crossed.

The eve of the strike

November 4, 2010

Mark Thompson says in his email he “cannot see what earthly good” a strike will achieve.

The good it aims to achieve is a commitment (as suggested by the NUJ and now also by Helen Boaden) to withdraw the proposals until we know the real size of the deficit. We may not win – that is always a risk with industrial action. But for me the test is this: I’d like to be able to look back and say I did everything I possibly could to defend the BBC’s pension scheme. The cost of strike action is a few days pay. The cost of the BBC pension proposals is thouands and thousands of pounds for every year of my retirement. Put that way the loss of salary over the next few days is a small gamble with a potentially huge payoff. And the gambling odds aren’t that bad either. There’s clearly opposition to Mark Thompson’s strategy at the very highest level of the BBC. Now is the time to fight back and see whether we can make the whole pack of cards come tumbling down.

I’d put Mark Thompson’s words a slightly different way. Why on earth wouldn’t you go on strike when the cost/reward calculus is so potentially beneficial?

Mark Thompson’s email

November 4, 2010

It’s clear that his aim is to defeat the NUJ. He’s leaving himself no room for maneuvre at all. I’ve picked out some quotes below, and added some thoughts.

“The proposals we agreed with the unions some weeks ago were and will remain the BBC’s final offer…” This says nothing more than has been clear for some time: a better offer will only come when the strikes cause enough pain that they force the BBC back to the negotiating table.

“The BBC couldn’t change its current position without breaking faith with the other trade unions and we just will not do that no matter how many strikes there are…” This is disingenuous: I’m sure the other unions would be happy to accept a “breach of faith” that meant a better offer for their members. Trying to dress up his intransigence as a show of loyalty to the non striking unions is really a bit silly.

“Some have argued that it would have been better if the whole question of pension reform had waited until after the formal valuation of the pension deficit had taken place.  But the whole point of introducing the reforms now was so that the reforms could themselves be taken account of in the valuation process.  As a result of the reforms, the deficit will be significantly lower than it otherwise would have been and the BBC’s payments to eliminate that deficit will also be lower.  Had we waited, the impact on services and jobs across the BBC would have been much worse.” Well, this has always been a bogus argument to try and dress up the BBC’s unilateral breach of the rules of the pension fund. What he is basically saying is that if the BBC waits for the formal valuation it will find itself subject to the law – and the law will mandate that it has to protect our benefits. Mark says we can’t wait for the official valuation. Today we find that at least one member of the Executive Board – Helen Boaden – disagrees with his view on this.

It’s beginning to look like the strikes are a make or break event for the DG. Given his uncompromising position, concessions would mean a humiliating U turn. Even a return to negotiations might leave him no option but to resign. And if he does resign, there is a “reconciliation” candidate for DG waiting in the wings.

Helen Boaden breaks ranks…

November 4, 2010

Take a look at this piece in the Telegraph. How interesting to see a figure as senior as Helen Boaden break ranks and condemn the BBC’s strategy! And on the eve of the strikes. She says “I think it would have been much, much better if the BBC had waited for the deficit to be properly assessed and then worked with the Trustees to come up with a viable, long term plan for addressing it and the ongoing demographic challenges”. In other words, pretty well exactly what those of us who oppose the BBC’s strategy have been saying all along!

The article speculates that perhaps she had permission from Mark Thompson, but personally I doubt it. Having seen her body language at the Trustees meeting I think she was just saying what she’s felt all along. Her position backs up what I’ve been saying for weeks: there has been conspicuously little support for Mark Thompson’s attack on our pensions from senior management at the BBC.

Helen has handed Jeremy Dear (NUJ President) a fantastic weapon – he can start every interview about the strike by saying that he’s got the support of a member of the BBC’s Executive Board.

I bet Mark Thompson is furious.

BECTU members jumping ship

November 2, 2010

There’s been anecdotal talk for a few days that in the wake of the ballot results, people were resigning from BECTU and joining the NUJ. Now there’s hard evidence.

Most of the BECTU branch committee in A&M (radio) have resigned from BECTU and joined the NUJ. In their last letter to their members as BECTU officials they express their profound disappointment that their own union leadership failed to challenge the BBC’s proposals, and failed to argue against CAB2011.  They want to carry on fighting for the pensions of everyone at the BBC, and the only way to do that now is through the NUJ. They report that they have had many enquries from their members along similar lines.

The contrast between the NUJ (where the leadership were forthright in pointing out how bad the BBC’s proposals are) and BECTU (where Gerry Morrissey ended up effectively making the BBC’s case for them) is quite striking. I share the frustration of those BECTU activists who could see that there was a powerful case to make against the BBC, but whose leadership had thrown in the towel.  The example of the NUJ proves that it was possible to win the argument with union members. In BECTU the leadership never made that argument. In those circumstances, jumping ship is a logical (if personally painful) decision to make.

It will be very interesting to see if BECTU faces more defections.

My position

November 1, 2010

There are two questions to answer when contemplating strike action.

First, is there a clear goal? And second, is the goal achievable?

On the first there is no doubt. The BBC has said it is going to impose the offer it has made. The goal of strike action is to stop this happening, so that we can have a proper negotiation about protecting the existing scheme. At the moment we do not know the true size of the deficit (although we know that it is at least 25% LESS than the BBC said when it started its scare campaign at the start of the summer).  And as my earlier posts have pointed out, there are compelling reasons for thinking that the existing scheme could be preserved without costing the licence fee payer any more more than the BBC already wants to spend on CAB2011.

The second question is tougher. It would clearly have been better if the unions had maintained a united front, and were going on strike together. Can the NUJ’s strike succeed? Yes, but it’s going to be a tough battle. We should be under no illusions. The only way to victory is to cause maximum discomfort to the BBC’s senior management. That means creating a real sense of resolve and purpose right at the start. It is certainly going to take more than one strike, and quite probably more than two rounds of successful action to make Mark Thompson think again. I suspect there is nothing he would like more at the moment than to defeat the NUJ – you can be absolutely sure that if he succeeds it will be a very short time indeed before he can be heard boasting that he has achieved something no DG has managed before; taming the unions.

But the fight is the right one. This pensions robbery is a disgraceful action of which the senior management at the BBC should be ashamed. They have scaremongered (a £2billion deficit, when it is actually under £1.5 billion); they have misled (numerous examples, but let’s take Zarin Patel’s legendary “life expectancy is increasing by a year every year” – which were it true would mean we are the first generation of immortal BBC employees); they have deliberately broken the promises they signed up to in the pension scheme rules and they have bullied (if you don’t vote yes we’ll withdraw the offer – as if it was some kind of second hand car deal). It is a flagrant piece of robbery and it is shocking that we have faced a senior management team so determined to renege on the BBC’s commitments.

At the end of the day they hope that we will succumb to sheer exhaustion – the constant drumbeat that “there is no alternative”. There IS an alternative, it is perfectly reasonable, and we are right to demand our pension rights be respected. Now is the only chance we’ll get to fight for our rights.

I won’t be crossing a picket line on Friday.