THE prospect of RTE going off air for the first time in 16 years moved a step closer last night as staff agreed to ballot on strike action.
Although the station's top stars, such as Pat Kenny and Gerry Ryan, are self-employed contractors, unions have warned they will not be able to broadcast their shows if camera operators, sound engineers and researchers go on strike.
The row centres on the fact that around 1,200 staff who joined RTE since 1989 are not entitled to the same pension rights as those who joined prior to that date. The RTE trade union group said the decision to ballot for industrial action was taken unanimously at a meeting of around 300 staff yesterday.
"After a 10-year campaign, members feel that RTE is not engaging in a meaningful way and today's meeting should serve as a wake-up call to management," its secretary Mary Curtin said.
When RTE staff last went on strike in 1992 over staffing levels, management took on new roles to keep the station on air -- resulting in some very shaky camerawork of former justice minister Sean Doherty's press conference on the phone-tapping of journalists scandal.
Ms Curtin said that the unions had been overwhelmed by the support from the station's star presenters.
The staff on the defined contribution pension scheme will now be balloted for industrial action -- including strike action -- in the coming weeks. A separate ballot will be held of the 600 staff in the older defined benefits pension scheme, which guarantees better returns, to see if they will support their colleagues.
RTE, which has referred the pensions issue to the National Implementation Body, said it fully respected the right of the unions to ballot for industrial action. A spokeswoman said the issue of pension payments to staff was a matter for the Department of Finance and that it was not a "cost-related" issue.
Earlier, the RTE group of unions presented their case to the Oireachtas Communications Committee. RTE producer Kevin Reynolds said the 1,200 RTE employees in the post-1989 defined contribution scheme would not know their exact pension entitlement until the day they retired.