Royal Mail and BBC staff threaten strikes

Employers’ reluctance to use mediation – and further public sector austerity – mean more unrest is likely, says industrial relations expert

Royal Mail managers and BBC journalists could be on the verge of striking over cuts to pay and meal allowances.

Unite, the UK’s biggest trade union, said almost 4,900 of its members who work for Royal Mail could walk out over a new pay offer of 1.3 per cent, which members feel is insufficient.

Some 95 per cent of Unite members at the postal giant have rejected the pay rise, which Unite officer Brian Scott labelled “paltry”. They have until 21 April to vote on the proposed strike action.

BBC journalists are also threatening industrial action over cuts to their daily evening meal allowance, which has been reduced from £16 to £10 and is claimable when staff work a late shift. BBC bosses claimed the change will save the organisation £300,000 a year, as part of efforts to cut its annual costs by £800 million.

“Why should our members pick up the tab?” said Sue Harris, national broadcasting officer at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). “These are legitimate expenses that staff incur as they do their jobs, often during unsocial hours.”

The BBC also intends to ban employees from taking first-class trains, and has informed them they should avoid using taxis in central London and opt for public transport wherever possible. The NUJ, together with unions BECTU and Unite, has suggested that the BBC could instead achieve the savings by slashing car perks for senior executives, which they said cost the broadcaster £344,000 last year.

“Both of these strikes appear connected to the ongoing impact of government austerity policies,” said Nick Bacon, professor in human resource management at Cass Business School. “The Royal Mail managers’ strike reflects employee concerns over commitments made to City investors to improve financial performance following the undervalued part-privatisation of Royal Mail in 2013. The BBC is attempting to reduce staff benefits to manage its reduction in public funding.”

Bacon suggested that the rising threat of strike action could also be partly attributed to organisations’ ongoing reluctance to use mediation. “Employers are reluctant to use Acas because they feel unable to improve pay offers or reverse plans to reduce benefits,” he said.

Bacon said it might be difficult for employers to enter arbitration in good faith if they felt financially unable to make concessions. “Reductions in public sector expenditure, including restrictions on public sector pay, will last until 2019-20, and it is likely that unions will conduct strike ballots as they seek to mitigate the impact of these restrictions on their members.

“It is possible that public sector employers may in future prefer to use the legislation on strike ballot thresholds proposed in the trade union bill currently before parliament [which will require a turnout ofat least 50 per cent of those eligible to ballot]. Given these circumstances, there may be more recourse to the courts and less recourse to arbitration in the next few years to resolve public sector disputes.”

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