Commentary: An important outside voice

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The Independent Online
The Banking Insurance and Finance Union is stronger at the TSB bank than any of the other big clearers, claiming 95 per cent of the staff as members, and sole negotiating rights with the management. So the vote this week for selective strikes in protest at job losses and redundancies is something of a test case, because if Bifu is going to score points anywhere it should be at the TSB. In a 50 per cent turnout, more than 7,000 members voted for strikes. Talks with management were continuing yesterday, and it is thought that Acas may soon be called in to mediate.

Bifu last went to the brink of a strike at the TSB 18 months ago. There was a dispute earlier this year over contracting out computing work, which brought some concessions, but pressures have built up sharply since then across the business as a whole. The combination of recession and the delayed effect on staffing of new technology introduced years ago has placed enormous pressure on banks to get rid of people.

Against this background, the argument with Bifu appears to be more about means than ends, since the union is not in a mood to block restructuring as such. It is resisting compulsory redundancies, citing a job security agreement 10 years ago, and suggesting alternative voluntary ways of structuring the 650 job reductions.

Institutional shareholders react positively to cost-cutting of whatever kind, leaving Bifu as the only outside voice in a position to question whether the cuts are actually effective. This is important, given the banks' well known tendency to over-react whenever they all perceive a problem at the same time.