Double blow to BBC Technology sale
Plans to privatise BBCT have been hit by the announcement of strike action, and a dramatic intervention by government.
As BECTU announced strike action over the sale, the Department of Culture Media and Sport confirmed to the union that the BBC's request to privatise BBC Technology will not begin its scrutiny by government until September 6, almost a week after the BBC's target date for the sell-off.
BECTU, which is affiliated to the Labour Party, has also been promised that its opposition to the sale, and concerns about the impact on staff, will be given a full hearing by Secretary of State Tessa Jowell, further delaying any final decision.
The government's unexpected timetable will win badly-needed breathing space for discussions about key aspects of the sell-off where disagreements between BECTU and the BBC have led to strike action.
Two separate periods of industrial action were announced today, July 22, in accordance with UK labour laws which oblige unions to give at least 7 days notice of strikes.
All members in BBC Technology, and a group of members in London News IT affected by the sell-off, will be instructed to withdraw their labour on July 30/31, and on August 13/14. The union intends to communicate the exact times of strike action closer to the planned dates.
Many BBC Technology members work in mission-critical areas of the TV programme chain - one of the arguments against selling the company in the first place - and union officials believe that BBC managers will be hard-pressed to maintain a normal service during the strikes.
A ballot early this month of BBC Technology members, in which almost two-thirds voted, produced an 84% majority in favour of action, while a separate ballot of nearly 30 News IT staff yielded an unprecedented 100% in favour of stoppages.
BECTU Assistant General Secretary Gerry Morrissey said: "We believe that this sell-off will damage the BBC, and we have asked the DCMS to reject it. Obviously, we welcome the delay that is now built in to the timetable, but we intend going ahead with industrial action unless the BBC and Siemens meet our demands on protection of terms and conditions, pensions, and job security".
The strike announcement came as BECTU members began a short-notice ballot on a revised offer on terms and conditions from German-owned Siemens, the buyer hoping to take over BBC Technology if the government gives the go-ahead.
Lawyers had advised the union that unless the new offer was rejected by members in a vote, strike action could be challenged by the BBC in court, and the consultative ballot has been timed to close on July 29, the day before action begins.
Union negotiators have unequivocally recommended that Siemens' offer should be rejected, citing problems with pension arrangements, and indequate guarantees about the future of terms, conditions, and jobs if the sale goes ahead.
BECTU is expecting members to turn down the offer, especially after early presentations from Siemens left BBCT staff with more questions than answers, particularly over pension rights.
"Our members feel they are being rushed into key decisions about their futures, especially their pensions, without adequate information", said Morrissey. He called on the BBC "to accept that we need months, not weeks, to deal with the mountain of detail that our members are worried about. Now we know September 1st won't happen, management should drop the idea of deadlines for the sale".
Members who need to know the timing of industrial action have two sources: this website, and a dial-up voicebox on 020 8914 9747. Both the outcome of the consultative ballot, and detailed strike instructions, will be available on Thursday July 29.
Amended July 23 2004