The BBC's plans for covering the political party conference season were thrown into chaos yesterday when staff voted emphatically to strike over proposed changes to their pensions. The planned industrial action is also set to disrupt coverage of next month's Ryder Cup golf tournament.
More than 90 per cent of workers who took part in a ballot organised jointly by the broadcasting union BECTU, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Unite voted in favour of industrial action.
Gerry Morrissey, the BECTU general-secretary, said: "Today's result confirms the extent of staff anger. We clearly have a resounding mandate for strike action to challenge the BBC on its plans to break its pensions agreement with staff."
Any industrial action is likely to be targeted at Labour's conference in Manchester at the end of this month, the Tory conference in Birmingham next month and the Ryder Cup, which tees off at Celtic Manor in Newport on 1 October and is due to be covered extensively by Radio 5 Live. However, the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson, has succeeded in buying time which will ensure any strikes will not begin until after Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Britain this month, and the last night of the Proms. Both were previously named as events where the BBC's coverage might be disrupted.
The BBC plans to cap final-salary pension benefits for existing members of its company scheme from April next year, and to close the scheme to new staff. It aims to cap pensionable salary growth at 1 per cent a year, whatever pay rises a worker may receive. The changes are designed to close a pensions deficit of up to £2bn.
Many BBC staff regard their generous pension arrangements as a counter-balance to the low wages they are paid compared with their counterparts at other broadcasters.
Yesterday, Mr Thompson tried to placate staff by sending them an email in which he admitted the proposed cuts were "tough". He added: "I'm not surprised that many of you have told us how worried you are about them."
The director-general said he was working with union leaders to try to find a compromise.
"During the last few weeks, we have been talking to the joint unions to discuss the areas where there may be scope for alternatives," he added.
"We have looked at a number of options and are now in the process of working up the details of what we believe could be an additional workable proposal."
Last night, Mr Morrissey warned that if further discussions about Mr Thompson's "alternative proposal" – of which no details have been released – did not bear fruit by 16 September then union members would commence strike action seven days later.
The NUJ general-secretary, Jeremy Dear, called the planned pension cuts "punitive and draconian".
Appealing to the BBC's management to withdraw its proposals, he added: "The massive scale of this vote is unprecedented – it is a reflection of the wave of anger and sense of betrayal which has greeted the BBC's attempted pensions robbery."
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