Strikes at the BBC: management and unions keep the workers under control

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The dispute at the BBC that led to a strike on 23 May is an indication of the difficulties facing the working class. Ever since the plans were published in December last year they have been presented as unavoidable; and the whole argument has been presented as being about how best to preserve the supposed excellence of the BBC.

The Director of the BBC, Mark Thompson, expressed his regret for the ‘painful’ plans he had to impose but explained that they were the necessary price for maintaining the BBC’s position as “one of the greatest – perhaps the greatest – force for cultural good on the face of the earth” (quoted in The Guardian 7/12/04). The impetus for the changes comes directly from the government, which has required the BBC to prepare for a future with the greater involvement of ‘independent’ producers and technical services as a condition of the renewal of the licence fee agreement. This has led to the plans for ‘savings’ of £320m and job losses of up to 6,000, totalling 20% of the workforce (Guardian 21/3/05). For the bosses of the BBC, as for the bosses of any organisation subject to the laws of capitalism, the truth is that they have no alternative but to carry out such actions if they are to continue. In the words of Mark Thompson: “We are going through the toughest period any of us can remember. It’s a difficult and painful process but necessary. We need to free up money to start investing in our digital future, to end our current Charter in December 2006 on budget and to show we are serious about providing value for money” (ibid).

The role of the unions

In a joint statement by Bectu, Amicus and the NUJ, published after the plans were announced, the unions began by denouncing the plans as showing “high-handed disregard for the future of thousands of staff” and as threatening “the very heart of the BBC”. They went on to promise a campaign of resistance: “The unions will resist all compulsory redundancies. Through the coming months we will stand together in workplaces to oppose the scale and extent of cuts, and work in the public arena with Licence Fee payers, politicians, and opinion formers, to make the case that the BBC offers the best value for money in British broadcasting.” However, for all the fighting talk, the statement accepts the essential need to adapt to the reality of the situation. Thus the unions will resist “all compulsory redundancies” and will oppose “the scale and extent of cuts”. This was repeated as the campaign developed. A letter in January this year appealed to the BBC governors to “allow representatives of the unions’ BBC National Joint Council the opportunity to have a significant input on behalf of staff to inform your decision-making”. A leaflet given out at the same time stated “The joint unions are committed to oppose any compulsory redundancies, we’ll be doing everything possible to persuade the management to tone down their plans” (our emphasis). A leaflet given out during the strike listed what the unions were asking for: “Proper negotiations with our management; no compulsory redundancies; talks about the future shape and scale of the BBC” and “an end to cuts for cuts sake” (our emphasis).

As with the managers of the BBC, the unions have no other options given as they accept the context in which organisations like the BBC exist, and the ideology about the nature and role of the BBC. Their role then becomes to reach some kind of deal – the ‘best’ that they can get – and to ensure the compliance of the workers that they claim to represent.

The position of the working class

The consequence of this is that the bosses and the unions work together to manage the workers. The bosses have acted tough. The unions have voiced their opposition but mounted a campaign that has been drawn out and isolated. After the announcement of the plan in December nothing was done until January when the appeal was made to the BBC governors. Then in March a low-level protest was mounted: “As part of a campaign day on March 2 against cuts and privatisations due to be announced this month, staff across the BBC wore union-issued badges in protest at the plans. Outside many BBC buildings groups of staff gathered at lunchtime to show their support for the union campaign, and at a meeting in London senior union figures warned that many of Thompson’s plans could wreck the BBC’s ability to deliver top-quality public service broadcasting (PSB)” (Bectu website 9/3/05). At the end of May came the one-day strike, followed by negotiations at ACAS, the calling off of the next planned strike and the presentation of the management’s proposals. The unions stated that “Management has made significant concessions regarding privatisations, but has failed adequately to address concerns over job losses” (joint union press statement 27/05/05). At the time of writing the new proposals have been rejected and the possibility of further strikes has been raised.

Does this mean that workers are merely passive victims in the manoeuvres of the bosses and unions? No. The working class is always an active factor in the class struggle. It is always a threat to those who would manage capitalism for the ‘best’. The workers at the BBC have been carefully handled by the unions and the bosses who have been mindful to gauge the mood of the workers. The one day strike came well after the original announcement; there were illusions in ACAS; the unions had no recommendations on the BBC’s revised proposals. The truth is that the unions and the bosses know there is anger amongst workers. Around the world the ruling class knows this. So today, it does not risk large scale manoeuvres, as we saw in the 1990s. It is more cautious about imposing cuts, even though the situation requires it to become more bold by making deeper and repeated attacks.

The dilemma that faces the working class is that it is presented with a situation that it seems unable to affect: over the last fifteen or sixteen years cuts and attacks seem to have multiplied and resistance seems to have achieved little. This explains the patchiness of the strike at the BBC. Overall some 40% of workers took part, but this ranged from 85% in some regions and sectors of the BBC to under 10% in others. There is anger and confusion in the working class in equal measure. This will continue while workers remain isolated, while strikes remain trapped at the level of one particular organisation and seek to defend that organisation. In reality, when workers strike at the BBC they are not BBC employees but part of the international working class and they are struggling not to defend the BBC but the interests of the working class.

This is the objective reality of the working class that confronts the objective reality of capitalism and ruling class. This confrontation lies within every strike, but only becomes real when workers begin to break out of the limits imposed on them by bosses and unions alike. When workers begin to act consciously as part of the proletariat they resolve the dilemma they face. They can affect the situation, if not at the level of winning this or that particular struggle, which becomes more and more difficult as the economic crisis bites deeper, then at the more fundamental level of strengthening the proletariat. It is this strengthening, this movement from the everyday experience of the working class to its final goal of a society without exploitation, that is the real fruit of the class’ struggles and the real hope of humanity.

North, 4/6/05


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