More than 90% of BBC union members have voted in favour of strike action in response to the corporation’s “drastic” pension reforms.

Members of Bectu, the NUJ and Unite have supported calls both for strike action and ‘action short of strike’ to protest what has been described as a “pensions robbery”.

Joint union representatives from the across the country met in London this afternoon.

As a result of today’s briefing, union representatives have decided that those talks should continue until mid-September, when the BBC has said it will table alternative proposals. Any announcement on strike dates will be deferred until that time.

Bectu general secretary Gerry Morrissey said: “Today’s massive ballot result confirms the extent of staff anger over the BBC’s plans; we clearly have a resounding mandate for strike action to challenge the BBC on its plans to break its pensions agreement with staff.”

Unprecedented response

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear described the response as “unprecedented”.

He added: “It is a reflection of the wave of anger and sense of betrayal which has greeted the BBC’s attempted pensions robbery.

“BBC management have an opportunity to avoid deeply damaging strike action by guaranteeing the value of pensions already earned and withdrawing their punitive and draconian proposals.” 

Peter Skyte, national officer of Unite, said the result meant the BBC needed “to think again about stealing pension benefits already earned and retaining a defined benefit pension scheme in order to regain the trust and support of its workforce for the challenging times that face the organisation in the future.”

Mark Thompson email

No one from the BBC was available to comment, but in an email to staff, director general Mark Thompson said he would be announcing full details of “an additional workable proposal” in the middle of September, which is likely to trigger an additional consultation period.

Noting a number of specific problems, such as the 1% cap on annual growth of pensionable pay, he explained the current arrangements had “acute” problems, “and our proposals were correspondingly tough”.

Thompson added: “As I said in August our room for manoeuvre is limited. We are facing a large pension deficit and must act now to reduce it. But we would like to meet your concerns as far as we can.” [see below for full email]

Reform plans

Plans to reform pensions go back more than four years to April 2006, when the corporation first announced its intention to close the final salary scheme to new members, increase staff contributions to 7.5% and raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for staff under 50 years of age. It is estimated the deficit is £1.5-£2bn.

Unions immediately responded, with threats of industrial action leading to an offer with improved terms, including a pay rise of 2.8%, rather than 2.6%. However, the issue came to the fore, with Michael Lyons announcing in 2009 that the corporation would have to “look again at the relationship between pay and pension benefits”.

The proposed reforms were introduced in April.

These include:

  • Pensionable salary of staff in the future will go up by no more than 1% a year from next April - even if an employee secures a substantial pay increase

  • The scheme will be closed to new joiners in December. They, and members of the existing scheme, will be able to join a new, defined contribution plan

  • Changes are subject to a 90-day consultation period, ending 30 September

Mark Thompson’s email to BBC staff

From: Mark Thompson
Sent: 01 September 2010 15:00
Subject: Pensions update

Dear All,

I promised to come back to you in early September once we’d had a chance to look in detail at all the comments and suggestions you’ve put forward on the initial pension proposals.  Thank you all for your contributions to the consultation so far. 

The challenges we face with our pension arrangements are acute and our proposals were correspondingly tough.  They represent disappointing news for most in the BBC Pension Scheme so I’m not surprised that many of you have told us how worried you are about them.  But you’ve also made some specific points:

  • many staff have expressed a concern that the proposed 1% cap on the future growth of pensionable pay could mean that previously accrued pension would reduce in real terms
  • quite a few have also said they are worried that, under the proposed cap, future promotion would have little effect on their future pension
  • although staff seem to accept that the proposed new Defined Contribution scheme is a competitive one, many have said they would prefer a lower risk alternative – ideally one which would also allow them to ensure that the pension they’d already accrued could be protected in real terms

As I said in August our room for manoeuvre is limited. We are facing a large pension deficit and must act now to reduce it.   But we would like to meet your concerns as far as we can.  

During the last few weeks, we have been talking to the joint unions to discuss the areas where there may be scope for alternatives.  We’ve looked at a number of options and are now in the process of working up the details of what we believe could be an additional workable proposal.  We expect to be ready to announce full details in the middle of September and we anticipate that this will trigger an additional consultation period.  

In the meantime, we remain committed to hearing your views and communicating with you regularly. 

All the best,

Mark Thompson