BBC unions say 90% supported strike

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The Independent Online
BBC UNION leaders will meet today to plan further industrial action after yesterday's 24-hour strike caused widespread disruption on television and radio.

News programmes suffered severely from the stoppage by members of the National Union of Journalists and Bectu, the technicians' organisation.

Unions said support for the action was more than 90 per cent as employees all over the country refused to cross picket lines. The corporation, however, estimated that 60 per cent of its staff - not all of whom are in grades organised by the two unions - turned up for work.

Senior officials at both unions did not expect any informal contacts between management and unions until today, when the BBC will have completed its evaluation of support for the strike.

Both unions are protesting over a new employment package the corporation is seeking to introduce which includes performance- related pay. Union members argue that it will reduce pay and introduce inferior working conditions.

Pickets failed to persuade leading TV newscasters to join the walkout, with Anna Ford, Michael Buerk and Ed Stourton all reporting for duty at the BBC TV centre in west London.

Among senior journalists who helped to present the news were John Simpson, diplomatic editor, Robin Oakley, political editor, Stephen Sackur, Middle East correspondent, Fergal Keane, South Africa correspondent, and Ken Cargill, managing editor news and current affairs, Scotland.

The BBC said that it regretted the industrial action and the inconvenience caused to viewers and listeners. The priority was to maintain a service and the bulk of the schedules - BBC 1, BBC 2 and the five national radio stations - were maintained although news and live programming was vulnerable, a spokesman said.

He added: 'The BBC needs competitive conditions of service to be competitive in the broadcasting market if it is to maintain its position as the cornerstone of British broadcasting and ultimately if it is to protect jobs.

'We regret that the unions pulled out of the discussions in March. The BBC wants a negotiated settlement and is keen to resume talks.'

The Today programme was yesterday replaced with repeats and an old film was substituted for BBC Breakfast News in an effort to fill airtime which was to characterise the rest of the day. The News at One was mainly a series of pre-prepared packages. While there are grievances and fears about the BBC's plans to impose excessive hours on staff working for the new 24-hour services such as Radio 5 Live, the strike was also used to register opposition to the leadership of John Birt, the director-general. The regime commands scant support below the top board of management and department heads.

Some BBC employees pointed out that it was the first time they had been able to directly express their antagonism since the row over Mr Birt's freelance tax status broke 14 months ago. 'This is really a vote of no confidence in John Birt,' a journalist said.

Yesterday's strike was probably more effective than the last action in 1989, when BBC staff went on strike over their annual pay deal. The more benign management of the director-general, Sir Michael Checkland, led to a swift climb- down, a return to Acas, and a promise to tackle low pay.

The question now is whether BBC management, uncomfortably close to the publication of a White Paper on the corporation's future, will reopen talks.

Mr Birt, writing in today's Daily Mirror, defends the plan to ask employees to give up special payments and allowances on the grounds that it will enable the corporation to keep programme prices down and compete with other independent programme making companies.

(Photograph omitted)