NUJ: Strike will lead to skeleton news services

Flagship news programmes such as Newsnight and Today will face major disruption by the 48-hour strike which started at midnight today, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists has warned.

The BBC is facing a news and current affairs blackout across radio, online and TV as star anchors including George Alagiah, Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce are expected to join around 4,100 other union members in a protest against changes to their pension scheme.

The massive walkout has left managers scrambling to plug gaps in the news and current affairs schedule with some shows going off the air entirely while others are flooded with pre-recorded items.

‘We have heard that it is highly likely that Newsnight will not appear, Newsnight Review, the Today Programme, World at One, the PM programme and From Our Own Correspondent on Saturday,’Dear told Press Gazette last night.

‘There will also be significant disruption to bureaus in Paris, Istanbul, Rome, Kabul, LA, Washington.

‘We expect that while the BBC will be able to get some programmes to air they will be skeleton services over the next 48 hours.”

The strike, which started at midnight with the formation of a picket line at TV Centre, won’t just affect national news output. High union participation and lower staffing levels on local and regional services, Dear says, could bring news provision in BBC Nations and Regions to a near-standstill.

‘The BBC will try to draft in freelances, try to put together pre-recorded packages and things like that but the live news will be really badly disrupted.”

The first of two planned 48-hour stoppages comes despite the BBC director general emailing staff yesterday with an 11th hour plee detailing how the walkout would lead to a considerable loss of earnings for them.

The second stoppage is expected to come later this month with the threat of further walkouts throughout the winter if the NUJ and the BBC remain at loggerheads.

The BBC has said it needs to act now on pension reform as the scheme is in deficit to the tune of £1.5bn. The union disputes this, believing the deficit is closer to £1bn.

Stoppages could be brought to an end, Dear says, if BBC management improve the deal on the table to protect staff against the impact of inflation over the coming years and suspend the implementation of the new pension plan until after the scheme has been valued in the spring and the actual size of the deficit is known.

‘We don’t believe they need to do this now…it would be better to wait until you know what the situation is,’Dear said.

Thompson used his email to staff yesterday to stress that there would be no new deal put forward.

‘Every other pension scheme we deal with gets its valuation then its managers and trustees sit down and work out a recovery plan,’Dear said.

‘To me it’s not an argument that holds any weight, even the actuaries, the trustees and the consultants have said there is no reason why they have to be doing this in advance of the valuation. To us it looks like they are trying to use figures that they think may scare people into accepting a deal which is worse than they could afford to offer.”

After previously forming a joint front against the pension proposals with five other unions, the NUJ was forced to go it alone into strike action after the other unions representing staff – Bectu, Equity, Unite and the Musicians’ Union – accepted the a revised pension offer put on the table last week.

Dear said the unions were agreed the new pension plan would leave members worse off but they differed on tactics about how to improve the deal.

Bectu had a provision to re-ballot its members on strike action, he said, if the pension deficit valuation in the spring turns out to be below £1.5bn.

But doesn’t he fear that public opinion could turn against BBC staff – as they did in the British Airways dispute – if strikes carry through the winter?

‘Anywhere in the public sector, or anywhere people get decent salaries, it is incredibly difficult in this economic climate to make an argument that will convince readers of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph that somehow we are justified in doing this,’he said.

‘What people do understand is that pensions people have saved for and paid for every month of their working life, for them now to be devalued and worth less than they have a right to expect is something that people have sympathy with”

Dear stressed that the NUJ had offered an alternative provision which would cap pension earnings to the first £50,000 of an employee’s salary: ‘That would affect highest earners but would protect absolutely people at the lower end,’he said.

‘It’s always a difficult decision [to strike] for people to make; particularly in a public service organisation,’Dear added.

‘We don’t want to cause any more disruption than we have to which is why we stress the point that we are still ready to talk.”

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