Big vote for BBC Technology strike

More than four out of five BECTU members in BBC Technology have voted for industrial action over privatisation.

In a ballot which attracted a high 68% turnout, 83.8% of voters supported industrial action in BBC Technology, in a dispute over the timetable for the company's sell-off, and the future terms and conditions of its staff.

The result was announced just a day after the first meeting between BECTU and German-owned Siemens, the preferred bidder to take over ownership of BBC Technology, where the union demanded guarantees for staff, and rejected the planned September 1 sell-off date as too close to allow full negotiations.

Managers from Siemens confirmed that although the company was willing to establish a pension scheme "broadly comparable" to the BBC's, and would retain many BBC terms and conditions, they could not agree to most of the union's demands for long-term guarantees that staff would not suffer adverse changes.

Staff would, however, be promised that no compulsory redundancies would occur among the group for 12 months after the date of sale - well short of the three-year guarantee sought by the union.

Siemens turned down BECTU demands for a three-year guarantee of no change in terms and conditions, as well as staged pay increases of inflation plus 2.5% over the same period.

Read full report of BECTU's meeting with Siemens

Union officials expect to give BBC Technology notice of industrial action some time next week, after consulting with members, but do not plan to pull out of further discussions with Siemens about the treatment of BBCT's 1400 staff.

At the July 8 meeting with Siemens Business Services, the BBC revealed that although the finance figures being discussed were secret, the expected savings to be delivered by its new technology provider "exceeded" the target of £20-30m, and the price to be paid for BBCT's shares was well over £100m.

Obligations for Siemens to underwrite future BBC capital requirements for technology projects, widely touted as one of the reasons for a sell-off, were not expected to feature in the Technology Framework Agreement (FTC) due to be signed with the company.

However, the agreement will not only make Siemens the preferred supplier for major projects like a new Broadcasting House in London, and a new centre in Glasgow, but also allows the BBC to transfer other technical operations into the Bracknell-based company without going through any procurement exercise.

This provision of the FTC fits in with the BBC's long term plan for all its broadcasting and information technology equipment to be connected by a single network, now almost certain to be in private hands.

BECTU has expressed concerns that as the super-network is rolled out, jobs in traditional technology areas across the BBC will either be outsourced to Siemens, or simply cut. Future developments could affect members in areas as diverse as News, Radio, World Service, and Nations and Regions.

BBC Technlogy's sale cannot go ahead without approval from the BBC's governors, expected in week beginning July 12, and explicit permission from the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS).

DCMS official have already been contacted by BECTU, and the union expects thorough consultation with the ministry before any decision is made on the completion of the sell-off.

Within the BBC, there is still anxiety that the sale of BBC Technology will put crucial parts of the broadcasting signal chain into the private sector. Until the evening before Siemens was announced as the preferred bidder, senior management were still locked in discussions about the wisdom of outsourcing the department that, in technical terms, runs the digital TV service Freeview, as well the central communications operation that handles every TV and News circuit in and out of Television Centre in West London.

BECTU has argued that apart from the operational and financial risks posed by the sell-off, the savings target that led to the privatisation decision could have been achieved in-house, and the union would have agreed to job cuts if required.

However, BBC Technology refused publicly to reveal their own cuts plan, Project Leo, which had been drafted last year in a bid to meet the BBC's demand for price cuts.

The BBC itself has admitted that some of the savings will result from a crude reduction in the number of technology services it buys from its provider - savings that could easily be made without the need for privatisation.

Union representatives plan to meet groups of members over the next few days to discuss their next moves.

Voting figures in the strike ballot were:

  • YES 207
  • NO 40
  • Participation 67.7%

9 July 2004