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Highly paid strikers
Journalists at the BBC went on strike. The world didn’t stop. A few unfamiliar faces appeared on the BBC News channel; maybe this is a good career break for them.

I find it quite disturbing seeing highly-paid BBC journalists striking. Some of the presenters who didn’t work during the strike earn astonishingly high salaries. Due to the unique way that the BBC is funded, we collectively feel a sense of ownership of the BBC; these strikers are working for us. Of course some of the striking journalists are on relatively low salaries too, but one has to imagine that even for them working at the BBC is a pretty cushy job compared to commercial television news, or newspapers.

I can’t understand why anyone who pays high-rate tax should be allowed to strike. They should sack the lot of them; that would save the BBC some money.
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But Toby, you're a Conservative. You'd sack everyone!


Naaa… just most of them!

I think it's more that they didn't cross the picket line rather than actually striking themselves.

You might compare it to the Screen Actors Guild strikes in the US. It looks odd to see millionaire actors carrying picket signs, but those actors represent the minority of SAG members, most of whom make very little money. The well-paid ones generally support the strikes simply to support those lower-paid union members.

Is there a practical difference between striking and not crossing a picket line? Either way one isn’t working.

I don’t know so much about the SAG strikes, but I understand the unionisation of American TV and film production is one of the reasons why so many progs are made in Canada.

Actually, many programmes are made in Canada simply because it's cheaper, just as many films are shot in Eastern Europe. It's all about money and profit margins.

You can be a manager and choose not to cross the picket lines. Technically, you're not striking as you're not a union member. And it doesn't mean you're sitting at home eating bon-bons.

But surely not turning up to work, without the legal protection of actually being on strike, could be a sackable offence?

It's more that they might not be paid for that day. Of course, it depends on what the person honouring the picket line calls it. Police in New York City weren't allowed to strike, so they used to come down with the 'blue flu', termed that because street officers wore blue uniforms and they'd all call in sick.

Under UK law, one only has legal protection for withdrawing labour (and hence losing pay) if one is a union member on an official strike, and various legal requirements have been met. If one withdraws labour without that legal protection, then one is in breach of one’s employment contract, and can be dismissed.

I had wondered what “blue flu” was — I’d heard the term in CSI: NY.

Note the modal auxiliary verb 'can'. :)

Of course! And I think it is worth noting that the public sector in Britain has always had much less of an appetite for enforcing employment contracts and disciplining bad behaviour than the private sector. Perhaps that is why unions are only really relevant nowadays in the public sector.

Who are the large private sector employers where unionisation could have an effect? Unions need large numbers of employees with similar conditions to succeed. With industry employing fewer people than in the past, this sort of circumstance isn't so common in the private sector as it used to be; while the public sector still employs large numbers of people under similar conditions.

Ah, but with Danny Alexander’s cuts on the way, the public sector will be employing many fewer people…

Forgive me if I don't view that with unalloyed pleasure.

It's more that the private sector can get away with things.

For example, teachers at independent schools in this country have far less protection than those at state schools or colleges. You can be let go at the headteacher's/principal's whim at an independent school. State schools give you far more protection from such arbitrary decisions.

In the US, I first started teaching at a time when there was a glut of teachers; it was difficult to get a job. I did apply for a job at a Catholic high school, but I gave up when I got to application question asking about my Christian values. By law, the school has to allow non-Catholics (and non-Christians) to apply. However, they can get away with asking questions such as that because they are independent.

As I'm not a Christian, I figured it would be lying to discuss anything that seemed like Christian values. I didn't apply.

A state school in the US or the UK cannot ask such questions of employees.

I worked for two years of my 28-year teaching career at an independent school, an American school in Surrey. It was awful. They were more about making money than educating pupils. I will never return to the world of private education. Boy, did I miss the union there! (I am in UCU now, btw.)

Paying someone lots of money shouldn't be about buying out their conscience. If more highly-paid people want to support the cause of the less well off (and sacrifice the day's pay in that cause, of course) that's their business, and possibly very laudable. Any argument should hinge on the justness (or otherwise) of the cause, not who chooses to support it.

Surely to be legally protected a strike has to be about genuine workplace issues, and has nothing to do with conscience? That is drawing unnecessarily emotional language into workplace disputes, which can only lead to estrangement of workers from their colleagues, and ongoing ill-feeling.

If highly-paid people want to “support the cause” it is not only their business, but also the business of their employer, and of their employers’ shareholders. There are levels of responsibility here, far beyond a personal choice.

Surely if, as an employee, you perceive that there's a genuine workplace issue then it's a matter of conscience? Am I right to provide implicit support to my employer, whom I believe to be wrong, by breaking a strike; or do I have an obligation to work that's higher than my concerns?

I don't believe you can prejudge the individual's answer to that question without detailed knowledge of the circumstances which, frankly, those of us outside the dispute are unlikely to have. We'll get the tabloid, politics of envy, bate and switch version that concentrates on the high wage packets of the few and ignores whether there's a reasonable case for the lower profile people involved.

As far as responsibility's concerned, it's in the interests of the employer and the shareholders to have a reasonably happy and efficient workforce. If they've got to the point of industrial action, there's a possibility that they've failed in that obligation and it is could be the action of a responsible employee to take part in action to bring it forcefully to their attention.

(Edited with strikethrough and emphasis to clarify my intended meaning.)

Edited at 2010-11-07 02:11 pm (UTC)

But that is assuming that a strike is based on black and white issues; that there is a right side and a wrong side. Most strikes are the result of months of careful negotiations breaking down, and most union votes to strike aren’t landslides. So I think it is fair to say that most strike are about borderline issues, not absolute issues.

With this BBC strike in particular, it looks like the NUJ are out on the edges of sensible opinion. The other four BBC unions (Bectu, the Musicians’ Union, Equity, and Unite) all accepted the terms of the BBC’s final offer. And there have been few signs of disagreement from the 60% of BBC employees who aren’t union members.

Publishing the details of the BBC pension deal will curry little favour for BBC employees. Even after the changes, the terms still seem extraordinarily generous compared to any private pension schemes. There will be people struggling to pay their licence fees who are outraged by the high salaries and generous pension arrangements of their news presenters.

I don't make any assumption about the issues; but a strike must come down to a binary decision at the level of individual responsibility, because you have to decide to support it or not. So in that sense, it is black or white, and at the level of personal perception there is a right side and a wrong side; or at least, a more right side and a more wrong side.

That is unfair, but no more unfair than, for example, having to cast your vote for one party at an election when your views might be more adequately represented by some blend of the different party positions.

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