Mark Steel: A striking example of modern unionism

It's hard to imagine Paxman and Kaplinsky linking arms to break police lines
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The Independent Online

The best part about the strike at the BBC is no one seems to know how to deal with it. If it continues, will the army be brought in to do the Today programme? "With me is the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. Alright Prescott, how do you respond to the latest criticism from your own backbenchers - wait for it, WAIT FOR IT. Right, you interrupted, give me 50 press-ups - on the floor NOW." Until it turned out they'd been torturing the weatherman from a rival station and taking photos on their mobiles.

The replacement programmes included an old football phone-in, which suggests the strength of the strike took the BBC by surprise and they just put out the first thing they could find. Next week they'll say: "And now, in place of our scheduled programme, another chance to hear some classic shipping forecasts. To start with, an old favourite from 1982, in which German Byte unexpectedly rises from 6 to 6.5."

The reason for the surprise may be because the strikers contradict the image of the typical trade union militant. It's hard to imagine Jeremy Paxman and Natasha Kaplinsky linking arms to break police lines. And a chant of BBC presenters would have gone: "What do we want? No cuts. When do we want it? Oh bugger, I can't read the autocue."

But the fact that thousands enthusiastically participated IS an accurate reflection of modern unions, which are now made up of more editors and news researchers than dockers and welders. For example, another strike takes place on Friday, among the staff at HSBC Bank. They've been informed they're getting no pay rise this year, what with money being tight. HSBC's chairman, Sir John Bond, is clearly an expert on making ends meet, as last year he scraped by on £2.1m, while the company made profits of £9.6bn, which, according to calculations I made having looked at the internet, is one third of the value of Morocco.

The usual explanation for such decisions is that they're investing for their customers. Which is also the surreal reason given when they shut down their branches. So one day you arrive at your friendly high-street bank, and there's a sign on the door saying: "In order to provide a better service for our customers, this branch is closing down. Your nearest branch is now in either Bristol or Berlin. This essential modernisation will increase our efficiency, as now the only way you'll have time to visit us is if you¿re unemployed, in which case you won't have enough money to require a bank."

It's not just HSBC that does this. My local branch of the Alliance & Leicester went the same way due to essential cost-cutting, and this week it turned out a senior executive has been awarded a pay-off of £974,000. So I hope he gets that payment by cheque, as he'll spend most of that money driving all over Britain finding a bank that is still open so he can pay the bloody thing in.

It was even reported that Alliance & Leicester had been interested in bidding for 98 branches of the Bristol & West. Presumably the plan was to buy them, then shut them down. Maybe the chairman just enjoys the feeling, the way other people love popping all the bubbles on bubble-wrap.

Banks and similar corporate bodies are the fastest growing areas of trade unions. And, according to one survey, even 46 per cent of people in non-unionised work-forces have said that they would be in a union if they could.

Unions are usually associated with manufacturing, but these industries didn't start off unionised. Nor did trade unionism spread automatically, like a virus. No one said "I went to the doctors, and told him I've been calling people 'brother' and linking arms with strangers. He took my temperature and apparently I'm a member of the Transport and General Workers'."

Someone has to go round with a form, convincing people it's worth joining. And that is more likely to take place when the union is fighting for its work-force, which may be why the unions at the BBC and HSBC Bank report a sudden influx of members.

This is a process already advanced in France. A bank called CFF announced redundancies, so the staff occupied the head office, refusing to leave until the sackings were lifted. A BBC news reporter interviewed an elegant, sultry Parisian woman, in an immaculate two-piece suit, who was in the occupation. "What we have done now," she said, with classic Parisian dismissiveness, "is take the chairman 'ostage. Because if he 'as said we are for the sack, what else can we do but take 'im 'ostage?"

The HSBC staff may not go this far. But maybe even the automated machines will support the strike. So anyone ringing up on Friday will be told: "If your inquiry concerns a current account, press three. Or please hold to be put through to a scab."