Dear at the TUC: 'If there's a war [with BBC] it's not one we started'

Speaking at TUC Congress on Tuesday, National Union of Journalists general secretary Jeremy Dear pledged to defend members currently fighting the BBC over pension reform. Here is his speech in full:

Delegates here [Monday] passed a resolution backing co-ordinated industrial action against cuts.

Minutes later, 12,000 BBC workers – members of the NUJ, Bectu, Unite, Equity and the Musicians Union, named two dates for co-ordinated 48 hour strikes against the BBC’s planned pensions robbery.

The Daily Mail today screams that BBC unions have declared war on the Tories – strikes are timed to coincide with major news events – David Cameron’s speech to Conservative Party Conference and George Osborne’s announcement of savage public service cuts.

The reality is if there’s a war, it’s not a war we started – but we will fight to defend our pensions and to avoid our members facing poverty in retirement.

When BBC management – cushioned from the effects of recession by executive pay awards, protected from the harsh realities of cuts by not just having one pension but a separate pension slush fund paid for by the licence fee payer – announced plans to cap pensionable pay at one per cent, thereby undermining at a single stroke the pensions already earned by thousands of BBC workers, there could only be one response.

The BBC’s proposals not only undermined the value of pensions already earned and broke the link between pensions and salary – they effectively spelled the closure of the BBC’s pension scheme.

Workers, saving all their working lives stood to lose thousands every year, tens of thousands of pounds over the period of their retirement.

And the BBC – and of course the Daily Mail – told us there was no alternative. But then we balloted. Amongst our members, 97 per cent voted for industrial action.

Across three unions more than 90 per cent voted for strike action.

It’s forced a rethink. The BBC has grudgingly put forward new proposals. They are an improvement – but they remain unfair and unacceptable.

How can it be fair to ask workers to pay almost double in pensions contributions, only to be worse off in retirement? How can it be fair for those at the top to enjoy six-figure annual pensions whilst the majority lose tens of thousands of pounds from their deferred wages in retirement? How can it be fair when over 13 years the BBC took a partial pensions holiday, underpaying into the fund to the tune of around £1bn, to now seek to claw that back from hard-working staff?

We support everything that has been said about the BBC’s remit.

But you cannot deliver such a remit without a skilled and dedicated workforce and you don’t build dedication, commitment and skills by attacking the terms and conditions of your workforce.

The BBC still has an opportunity to avoid strike action. BBC staff aren’t greedy. They know the value of public service. They’re not saying there can be no change – but change must be fair, must protect the value of the pensions earned, must help the BBC deliver its remit for quality news and entertainment – not enable the continuation of a runaway gravy train which delivers excessive management salaries, that creates an environment in which senior managers think it is ok to spend £5000 travelling to the World Cup when they are not even working there, while too many BBC staff have to cut corners on programmes or work excessive hours to make up for staffing shortages.

BBC staff work those hours because they understand the meaning of public service.

The increasing numbers of bankers and consultants advising the BBC do not. And the implications of this dispute go beyond the newsrooms and studios of the BBC. Public sector employers and government will be watching the outcome.

What happens today at the BBC may be replicated in civil service, local government, health and education workplaces tomorrow.

That’s why co-ordinated action is necessary. Why your support is vital. Why the TUC must see this battle as one which the trade union movement as a whole must win.

We remain committed to negotiating a settlement to this dispute to allow the BBC to deliver its remit. We’ve set out ways the BBC can meet those requirements. But, if the BBC fails to act, we remain committed to action to defend our members’ pensions and for fair pensions for all.

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