The threat of a strike by BBC staff that would have disrupted coverage of next week's Conservative conference was lifted yesterday to give staff time to vote on a new offer from management.
The reprieve came after the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had urged the unions not to black out David Cameron's speech, the first party conference speech by a Conservative Prime Minister for 14 years.
Three unions – Bectu, which represents camera crews, Unite, which represents engineers, and the National union of Journalists – had called the strike in protest at the ending of the BBC's final salary pension scheme.
The first action was planned for next Tuesday and Wednesday, preventing coverage of the Conservative annual coverage on BBC news bulletins. But after talks with management until late in the afternoon, the union leaders emerged with an improved offer. It will be put to their members in a ballot.
If it is rejected, there is still the threat of a two-day strike on 19 and 20 October, blacking out reporting of George Osborne's comprehensive spending review, in which details of the public spending cuts will be revealed. The unions have also given notice of another planned strike on 25 and 26 October.
"We have had a significantly improved offer from the BBC which we believe is the best that can be achieved through negotiation. If it is accepted, all the action will be called off, but if it is rejected, strikes will take place," Gerry Morrissey, the General Secretary of Bectu, said yesterday.
The new offer will have helped heal a rift that was opening up between the unions and Labour's new leader, and between the BBC's senior political journalists and lower-paid staff.
A letter signed by 31 prominent BBC journalists, including the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman and the political editor Nick Robinson, had appealed to the strikers not to disrupt the Conservative conference because it might give the impression of bias.
Privately, political journalists were arguing that if there was to be a strike, it should be timed to coincide with Strictly Come Dancing, for maximum impact on the BBC's audience figures, rather than on the coverage of political events about which the public has a right to be informed.
The stars' appeal was supported yesterday by the Labour leader. "Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute between Bectu and the BBC, they should not be blacking out the Prime Minister's speech. My speech was seen and heard on the BBC and in the interests of impartiality and fairness, so the Prime Minister's should be," Mr Miliband said.
His remarks angered union leaders, particularly since two of the unions involved, Bectu and Unite, are contributors to Labour funds. "As a Labour Party affiliate, BECTU places on record its dissatisfaction with Ed Miliband's statement," Mr Morrissey said. "The Leader's intervention is not helpful and is dismissive of our actions as a responsible trade union which has been negotiating with the employer on this issue for three long months."
The dispute began when the BBC's management announced a 1 per cent limit on future pension increases, to fill what they claim is a £1.5bn hole in the pension fund. The unions dispute whether the deficit is as high as management claims, and said the planned cut would mean long-serving staff retiring on pensions of as little as £12,000.