BBC Pensions case - why fighting was better than folding, despite the cost

SOME FIGHTS are worthwhile, even if you lose, others are not worth fighting even if you win. Wisdom, of course, lies in distinguishing one from the other; and possessing such intelligence is what marks out effective trades unions.

Pensions campaign poster

A campaign poster

The NUJ has spent the last seven years in an industrial and legal tussle with the BBC over changes that the Corporation unilaterally made to its pension fund. In the first round of scrapping, the NUJ linked with other affected unions to threaten strike action. As a result, the detriment to members was reduced from a cut of up to 40 per cent to their expected final pensions, to approximately a 20 per cent reduction.

At this point, in 2010, Bectu's leadership advised its members to accept the deal and walk away from the fight. NUJ workplace representatives - mothers and fathers of chapel in our nomenclature - emphatically rejected this course of action and vowed to fight on. When the revised deal was put to employees, Bectu members accepted the cuts; those in the NUJ rejected them 70:30 and a 48-hour strike followed.

Without the unions acting in concert, further strike action was unlikely to be effective. So, the NUJ initiated legal proceedings against the BBC. The detailed reasoning behind this can be found here.

The case of BBC clarinetist John Bradbury offered the quickest way to bring these matters to court and so it was this that the NUJ backed. It has been a long and twisty journey, but the ultimate result has been defeat. Our specialist solicitor and two QCs took the case on a conditional fee basis (effectively no-win-no-fee) so they won't be sending us a bill. The union will, however, have to meet the BBC's legal costs, which could be as much as £200,000 - a hefty sum of money for an organisation with an annual budget of approximately £5m.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Despite the pain of stumping up so much cash, however, I believe that it is money well spent - for three main reasons.

It shows our members that the NUJ does not duck a fight. The BBC employs more NUJ members than anyone else in the UK, all of whom pay the highest rate of subscriptions. Our reputation for taking courageous and principled stances is one of the reasons that we enjoy such density at the BBC and why our industrial work there gains traction. Banners, badges and a cafe/bar are all fine features of NUJ membership, but it is for our gritty, steadfast representation that most members cough up their subs every month. Our doggedness with this case is emblematic.

It also shows the BBC that the NUJ does not easily crumple. Doubtless champagne corks popped in the BBC boardroom when the judgement was handed down, but senior managers know full well that the decision went their way on a knife edge. Evidence of how chastened the BBC has to be fished from the oblique world BBC management decision making. One close observer of their pension scheme left me in no doubt, however, that decisions made since the legal action was initiated have been far more measured. It is also worth noting that none of the senior managers who were responsible for the original decisions that led to this case are still working for the BBC. One, Lucy Adams, who was then Group HR director, has since described her actions in respect of the pension scheme as her "biggest regret".

Finally, it buttresses our whole union's moral compass. For all our headquarters, paid officials and democratic structures, a union's most critical currency is the sense of co-operative self confidence among members. The battle to safeguard BBC pensions was the right thing to do, whatever the risks. The cost will require some belt-tightening, and perhaps some imaginative fund raising, but won't affect the quality of our work.

Deciding which cases to back can be a heart-wrenching job. In my decade on the NUJ's finance committee I have considered scores. In some cases despite my instinct to fight, I was persuaded that poor chances of success or the limited likely effect of taking the case meant that we had to say "no". On both these tests, however, the metrics on the BBC case were different. The outcome has affected thousands of members, and our best legal advice was that we would win. That we lost is not, in my view, evidence that our advice was wrong, but an indication of how sometimes the law can be a lottery.

Seeking battles wherever they present themselves is not possible - resources are finite. The BBC pensions case, however, is an example of the right place to have picked a fight, even though the outcome was not the one for which we hoped. I for one am proud to be a member of a union that puts real resources into defending members' interests.