BBC pensions battle concerns us all

If we are to have any success at all in the battle to defend pay, pensions and public services, workers need to overcome the divide-and-rule tactics that stop us from effectively fighting back.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The current fight over the BBC final salary pension scheme is a perfect example of how the capitalist establishment has perfected the art of ‘divide and rule’ to maintain itself in power, and to gain workers’ help in implementing measures even when they’re obviously not in workers’ interests.

First, the anti-trade union laws and decades of treacherous, establishment-friendly union leaderships have combined to create conditions in which ‘union’ activity is anything but unified. The law stops people who work for the same company going on strike together unless they can prove they are in the ‘affected pool’ of any dispute – effectively outlawing solidarity, the mainstay of effective union action.

Second, the narrow craft mentality, so despised by Marx and Engels 150 years ago, is still alive and well. At the BBC, for example, there are carefully nurtured divisions between technicians and journalists or programme makers (as reflected in the union split of Bectu vs the NUJ); between ‘skilled’, service-related staff and ‘unskilled’ (and now outsourced) support service staff (cleaners, caterers, security etc); between management and production grades, and so on.

Disputes that affect one group of staff are invariably seen as ‘none of the business’ of others, even if they’re all members of the same union.

This narrow definition of union activity has been embraced and emphasised by a leadership that now defines its role as “protecting the [immediate] interests of members” – even when failing to look past this narrowest of definitions means actually to fail to protect the long-term interests of both their own union members in particular and the class in general.

A case in point is the introduction of divided conditions in the BBC staff pension scheme. Ten years ago, the decent terms of the existing final salary scheme were “closed to new members” with hardly a murmur from the unions, in thrall to the class-collaborationist Labour party. After all, as long as the benefits of existing union members were protected, surely there was nothing for them to be fighting over?

Four years ago, BBC managers closed even the reduced benefits section of the final salary pension scheme “to new members”, this time raising the retirement age and introducing a ‘career average’ scheme that was known to result in a far lower pension. Again, the union put up no fight at all.

One branch of Bectu union reps, however, made a point of explaining to its members that allowing future staff and union members to be penalised in this way was actually giving the green light to managers to take away their own, better benefits in the years ahead. In five or ten years, they argued, the BBC could close its final salary scheme and move them all over to the dreaded career average scheme, safe in the knowledge that the thousands of staff on already-reduced benefits were not going to jump to the defence of their more privileged colleagues.

At most of the open meetings held around the country, the union leaders posed the question thus: “Are you prepared to go on strike to defend the interests of future members?” Just to leave no room for doubt about how attendees should vote, the speaker emphasised that members at other meetings had indicated they were not prepared to take such action. And so, of course, the staff present mostly voted that no, they weren’t either.

But at the one meeting where the point was explained that fighting to prevent the introduction of divided conditions was in the interests of everyone, the meeting voted overwhelmingly that they would be prepared to go on strike to defend that principle.

Thus the role of leadership is strikingly illustrated – and the way in which most of our current union leaders deliberately mislead their members away from action and towards passivity and resignation to their ‘inevitable’ fate.

Now, BBC managers have seized on the current crisis as their opportunity to do just what was predicted four years ago. After an even more draconian opening gambit, their current ‘compromise’ proposal is to ‘tackle’ an overhyped deficit by effectively closing the final salary scheme and allowing members a three-month window to choose whether to switch to an even worse career average scheme than the one which was instituted in 2006.

And even this crappy deal isn’t being offered to new starters; a sure sign that it’s only being used as one more temporary move to break staff resistance to management’s plans.

So what are future staff members going to get if the BBC’s plans go ahead? A ‘defined contributions’ deal which even financial advisors admit is bound to lead to pensioner poverty (since it relies on the value of stocks and shares on the day of retirement), but which has the massive advantage (to the BBC) of reducing contributions and passing all risk over to the employee.

Not coincidentally, such a lowering in staff overheads and passing over of risk would make the BBC a much more attractive candidate for future privatisation. (Total privatisation, that is. Partial privatisation has already taken place and continues to increase. This would merely facilitate the last piece of the puzzle at some future date.)

The fact that the deficit could be affordably dealt with and the existing pension schemes sustained for another 40 to 50 years has, of course, been ignored by management, and seems to be of minimal interest even to the joint union negotiators, dominated as they are by Labour party bureaucrats who believe that workers should sacrifice themselves to save capitalism.

These heroes all agree that “some change” is “inevitable”, and are doing their best to help the BBC to find the exact level of reduced benefit that workers can be persuaded to accept, even while they mouth empty platitudes about the BBC “failing to put the case” for closing its final salary scheme.

Moreover, despite the experience of the last four years, they’re still telling members that fighting to defend the interests of “future members” is an “unrealistic” prospect!

When challenged as to why they continued to spend their negotiating time on hashing out the details of the transfer of staff to a much worse pension scheme, Gerry Morrissey of Bectu blustered that of course they had to “negotiate”; and that, of course, “realistically” members wouldn’t be prepared to go on an all-out strike to defend the current schemes.

Telling members that they’re not up for the fight seems to be a standard tactic of these brave souls, who would never in a million years think to explain to members why they should. At every open meeting the leadership have held with members, they have come with a carefully constructed ‘militant’-sounding motion, open to whatever construction they chose to put on it, which they ask the members present to vote on, and from which they then claim to be taking their policy “mandate”.

And as each round of declared strike days is cancelled in favour of continued haggling over the details of a sell-out ‘deal’, the BBC will surely be hoping that time, and the deluge of propaganda with which staff are being overwhelmed, will do their job of sapping the morale, slowing the momentum and undermining the resistance of ordinary union members. It is a carefully choreographed ballet in which the union negotiators seem perfectly happy to play their part.

Moreover, none of the leadership wants to even look at, never mind take responsibility for, the wider picture, which is one of all-out assault on the pay, conditions, pensions and levels of service provision and benefits for all workers in Britain.

Nor do any of them want to ask the question of just why it’s supposed to be ok for ordinary workers to give up their pensions at the altar of the banks’ debt burden? If the banks can be bailed out, why can’t public-sector pension schemes (assuming they actually need it)? Even if the BBC scheme’s deficit was ten times as big as it is, there would still be no justification for stealing the deferred wages of present and future workers.

With a massive assault on all public-sector pensions just around the corner, it is clear that the government would love to pick off the BBC’s final-salary scheme first, and thereby send a signal to other public-sector workers that resistance is futile. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the unions ought to be joining together to fight this battle for all our pensions in a strong, united way, rather than simply allowing the government to reduce the living standards of all workers, one section at a time.

The battle against privatisation and to preserve pay and pensions are the same battle. Their outcome affects us all. If the BBC’s final-salary scheme is closed down, it will be that much easier to close down the rest of the public sector’s schemes. Once they are gone, the remaining private-sector schemes will go too. And with the last of those final salary pension schemes will go any idea of an all-too-briefly enjoyed right to an old age of dignity at the end of our working lives.

If the casino capitalism model of gambling our pension funds on the stock market has failed, then surely it’s time for our unions to get together to lead a campaign for a single, national pension fund, underwritten by the government and guaranteed to pay out a defined benefit to every single British person on retirement age.

There’s a class war going on. All the talk about ‘belt-tightening’, of the ‘difficult’ but ‘inevitable’ decisions to be made about what to cut and how to cut it, masks the reality of a failed capitalist system that is desperate to save itself by passing the burden of its self-created crisis onto the backs of its victims.

Workers are not being asked to sacrifice their pensions because they’ve been greedy, but because the capitalist financiers have been greedy. The NHS is not unaffordable because we’ve all been burdening society with too much sickness, but because the capitalists have burdened us with their sickness – with the sickness that puts the quest for maximum profit above all human considerations and pursues it long after sanity has left the building.

It’s time we stopped kowtowing before the union-bashing laws and acted together to make them unworkable. We need to defend the pay and public services of everyone, bringing back to life the apparently forgotten trade-union maxim that ‘United we stand, divided we fall’.

And it’s time we learned the ultimate lesson from all of this: that capitalism will never give us security of any kind – secure homes, hospitals, schools, work or pensions, security of food or a secure environment to live in.

Sixty years ago, British workers, with the international revolutionary movement to spur them on and give power to their elbow, won huge concessions from a post-war ruling class that was clinging on to power by its fingertips. With the collapse of the Soviet Union to embolden them, and the deep capitalist economic crisis putting a strain on their system once more, our rulers are taking away with one hand what they once graciously ‘granted’ with the other.

It’s clear we have the mother of all battles on our hands to defend the gains of yesteryear. This time, instead of settling for whatever the capitalists are prepared to concede to us on a temporary basis, let’s set our sights a little higher and go for a solution that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of this outmoded and parasitic system.