An account of the British Film Institute strikes, 2002

Picket line outside the head office

A short personal account of the strikes at the British Film Institute (BFI) in London in 2002.

I was an agency admin worker in the BFI head office off Tottenham Court Road from mid-2001 until early 2002, dealing with calls from customers and logging in and out materials from the film archive.

I am writing this down from my recollection nearly 15 years later, with the help of a couple of Indymedia articles I wrote at the time1, and an old BFI annual report for reference.

This was the first industrial dispute I had been involved in, and in particular the first time I had been on strike so I thought I would take the time to write it up.

Staff were mostly members of the Amicus union (they had been in MSF which had recently merged with the AEEU to former Amicus), and they rejected a 1% pay offer for 2001/2.

Anger was exacerbated by management creating four new senior posts paying £60,000 + each, and staff at the Film Council earned over 50% more than BFI workers in similar roles.

As a temp who hadn’t been around for long, no other staff really spoke to me about the dispute, other than when I attempted to initiate discussion. In my team of around three people, who were the only people I worked with regularly, they were all union members but not particularly active.

Members voted in favour of industrial action, for the first time in 26 years, and on Thursday 24 January they began walking out from half day each Thursday morning demanding a 4% increase and better conditions (IIRC I believe better maternity pay was one of the demands).

On the first day of action the vast majority of staff in my office took part, leaving several floors deserted. Members agreed to obey government anti-strike legislation, although one worker told me “will play by the rules for now” and see how the dispute progressed.

The director, Jon Teckman sent a threatening email to all staff after the first strike, which seemed to backfire. He threatened a grant freeze if the industrial action continued, but most staff I spoke to said that they had “had enough” and that more would join the strike next time.

Some people were particularly militant: one woman told me she “was prepared to walk out and starve to death” rather than give in.

Apparently there was some pressure from the Amicus bureaucracy to compromise, but the local union reps took a more confrontational attitude which was supported by the bulk of the workforce.

Strangely I thought, when I told my team I wouldn’t be crossing their picket line, they told me that I should come into work as normal as I wasn’t in the union (and they didn’t ask me to join) and I would probably get in trouble.

But I didn’t cross the picket line, instead when I arrived at work I joined them and let them know I supported them, took part in a short march and then took the advice of the pickets to make myself scarce so I sat and read in a nearby cafe until lunchtime when the strike was over.

Apparently though my absence was still noted, and a senior manager ordered that my contract be terminated. After getting the decision letter, I was told that my manager (who had been on strike) had gone to her seniors and they had agreed to reverse the decision.

A second walkout took place the following week, which I also joined against advice from colleagues.

Further action was then suspended after new talks at ACAS (the government conciliation service) were agreed, and my contract was terminated again shortly after.

I later learned that a new agreement was reached between the union and management but unfortunately have been unable to find out the detail.

Written October 2016

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  • 1. Although in my second article looks like I made an error and referred to a third strike, whereas only two took place