You can’t touch me, I’m part of the union 

1 June 2004

Margaret Thatcher

“£2million of equipment lying unused? Good, that’s a victory for us.” Alan Sapper, General Secretary of the ACTT, in the programme of the Edinburgh Television Festival of 1978.

Mention major strikes of the past thirty years – I will admit there have been few memorable industrial disputes since the miners’ strike, though the firemen had a reasonable go last year – and most people will usually mention the Winter of Discontent, the miners strikes of 1974 and 1984, the Red Robbo years at British Leyland, and Times readers will always tell you about the one year strike at Times Newspapers.

Not many people, excluding television employees and TV anoraks like me, will recall ITV’s version of the Winter of Discontent, when the ACTT pulled the plug on the network for 10 weeks in 1979 after pay negotiations broke down. For 10 weeks ITV went the way of a large part of British industry in 1979 and was closed due to industrial action.

It’s just over 24 years since the granddaddy of television strikes ended and it’s time to look back on the times when Alan Sapper and Tony Lennon were the most feared men in British broadcasting

It couldn’t happen now of course. BECTU, which was formed out of the ABS, ACTT and BETA in 1989, only has 25,000 members, compared with 60,000 members of the three main broadcasting unions in 1979.

Except at the BBC and the larger ITV companies, and even here the unions are a shadow of what they were at the time of the 1979 strike, television unions are too weak to carry out the sort of industrial action they were capable of well into the eighties.

The Thatcher employment laws, no surprise, the rise of satellite television, where the unions are very weak, the slashing of staff at regional ITV companies and the end of the unionised jobs for life culture in broadcasting have contributed to the downfall of the once all powerful broadcasting unions

However, the past is another country, as they say. Alan Sapper’s speech could have been uttered by Red Robbo in the British Leyland car park, as Sapper, in common with many of his TUC counterparts at the time, believed strongly in securing the best conditions and pay for his members at any cost.

It was no surprise that he was both loved and loathed by many in the television industry, Michael Grade often referred to the ” medieval servitude” of ITV companies to the ACTT in the seventies, and John Birt in a speech in 1996 about television in the seventies declared, “We were a grossly fat, wasteful, inefficient industry” and blamed the unions for this problem.

Television was only one industry where this accusation could be laid, Fleet Street was notorious for over manning and resistance to change. However, rather than to praise or bury the likes of Alan Sapper, the main purpose of this article is to look at the major TV strikes of the seventies and eighties

Andrew Hesford-Booth has already covered the ITV strike of 1968, which saw ITV almost crippled by technicians strikes for three weeks, so I won’t go into great detail about this. However, the 1968 strike saw the start of 20 years of rancorous relations between television bosses and the unions and Alan Sapper’s success as a union negotiator in the strike saw the rise of this controversial figure to general secretary of the ACTT the following year, a position he was to hold until 1989

Television staff, apart from journalists and senior managers, tended to belong to either the ACTT or the ABS in the seventies. (A smaller number were in NATTKE, though this was very much a small player in television.) The ACTT had been formed in 1933 as the Association of Cinema Technicians and had managed to become recognised by most of the film studios by the end of the thirties.

An attempt to be recognised by the BBC in the fifties was rejected, most BBC technicians were in the ABS, which was very much the BBC union, but the threat of strike action if it was not recognised by the new ITV companies in 1956 saw the ACT become the main union for ITV technicians, the T for television was added in 1956.

Until the two unions merged, the ACTT was largely the ITV union and more militant- it made sure ITV members remained among the highest paid workers in Britain- while the ABS was largely for BBC staff and less militant, though it did have its moments, as we shall see

After the 1968 strike, there was a period of relative calm in television industrial relations, the new ITV contractors such as LWT became very wary of antagonising the ACTT after the humiliating strike just after the new contractors started broadcasting and generally gave the unions what they wanted. The television unions demanded and received extra money to operate colour television equipment, for example.

However, as the seventies wore on, and industrial relations in general worsened, the television unions became more militant. A strike by ITV technicians in 1975 was resolved by offering the ACTT a massive 35 per cent pay rise; ITV was too worried about falling income from advertising during a recession to sit through a prolonged strike.

In 1978 relations with the unions and the broadcasters reached an all time low. Alan Sapper’s entry in the Edinburgh Television Festival’s guide was met with a hostile response by the broadcasters, who considered the ACTT to be holding them to ransom with huge demands for overtime and weekend working. Michael Grade commented about the time, “All of us were demeaned by the necessity of adding bribes to high wages to get technicians to work.”

A bitter question and answer session with John Bugler at the festival added to the feeling that all was not well in TV land. And it was not. 1978/79, in common with much of British industry, saw industrial relations reach an all time low in broadcasting.

The first company to be hit by industrial action was my local ITV station, Border. A dispute over new technology saw Border shut down for three weeks in November 1978.

While probably of little significance nationally, unless you were a fan of Mr and Mrs, the shutdown meant no ITV in Cumbria while the technicians and station managers argued amongst themselves. Eventually the strike ended in stalemate and compromise, though the Border strike was a taste of what was to come on ITV

The BBC was also hit by its most famous dispute shortly afterwards. BBC wages had lagged behind those at ITV for many years, the situation being exacerbated by the fixed income of the licence fee in an atmosphere of high inflation. (Alasdair Milne, in his autobiography, stated that the BBC could not increase its income by raising advertising rates like ITV could, and was also under more pressure to obey income policy restraints because of its position.) In the autumn of 1978, the normally moderate ABS decided to take on the BBC management

The first victim of ABS action was Radio 2, whose attempt to introduce a 24-hour schedule in November 1978 was delayed by the ABS until 1979.

A series of wildcat stoppages on BBC TV was followed by a two- day strike on December 21st /22nd,which crippled the BBC – this was probably the only time pop music was heard on Radio 4, as the BBC was forced to introduce a single national radio service – and the threat of an all out strike over Christmas. Not prepared to see the Sound of Music abandoned, and to see ITV dominate the Christmas schedules, especially with the defectors Morecambe and Wise, which would given ITV even more reason to add insult to injury, the BBC quickly agreed to a 15 per cent rise for its technicians.

Unfortunately you could argue the price of saving the Sound of Music was a deathblow to the Labour government’s pay policy and the prologue to the Winter of Discontent, the outcome of which was Margaret Thatcher

BBC unions continued their pressure for substantial pay rises throughout 1979, though in quite an intelligent way. Rather than all out strikes, which their members could probably ill afford, BBC technicians tended to take selective action against key broadcasts.

The Song for Europe, then a very important pop contest watched by millions, finished in sound only due to cameraman’s walkout, the singer of Black Lace telling the Daily Mail saying they won because they sounded better than they looked.

Similarly Miss World ground to a halt when technicians walked out half way through, causing coverage to be cancelled, and, according to TV Cream, being replaced by a silent Ronnie Barker film. (Eric Morley, the organiser, vowed never to have the contest shown by the BBC again after the embarrassment it caused him.)

At least the BBC disputes, while embarrassing to the Corporation internationally, were more irritating than potentially destructive. For all its talk of being hard up, at least the BBC had the licence fee to fall back on if a strike was to last a long time. ITV could only rely on money from advertising, so a long strike could ruin the whole network. Thus, the scene was set for television’s version of the Winter of Discontent, held in the summer of 1979.

In common with other workers, who had won pay rises of 15-20 per cent during the Winter of Discontent, the ACTT pressed ITV for a similar pay rise during the summer of 1979.

This time ITV refused the ACTT’s demands and the ACTT advised its members to walk out on 10 August. The strike, which blacked out ITV for ten weeks, was the longest in television history

As I recall, the strike seemed to drag on forever. ITV’s captions changed from, “we are sorry for this break in our programmes”, then when ITV realised it had its version of the Winter of Discontent on its hands, to “There is an industrial dispute, programmes will start as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately the strike coincided with the traditional BBC summer of repeats and sport and viewers became increasingly furious as they were denied their favourite ITV shows.

Personally, no ITV in the summer mornings meant no Thunderbirds – I was only 11 at the time – and no opening sequences to watch, only a boring blue caption with Independent Television (not Border or Tyne Tees) on it. Cricket on BBC1 was no substitute. However, the BBC knew that people had to watch their programmes regardless as there was no alternative.

At a more serious level the strike was proving very costly for the ITV companies who had no other way of making money than advertising. The IBA, according to Michael Grade, wanted the strike settled at any cost as there was a risk some stations could go bankrupt.

Grade commented on the strike, “The IBA believed the public interest was best served by keeping the screen alive, so we must accommodate the unions at whatever the cost.” The unions were offered a 22 per cent pay rise, more than the ACTT had originally asked for, and ITV returned on October 24th to the tune of “Welcome Home to ITV” by the Mike Sammes Singers.

However, the aftermath of the ITV strike was to prove even more damaging to the network than the 1968 dispute. For two weeks the network inflicted 3-2-1 virtually wall to wall on its viewers, as this was the only new programme that could be made, Independent Television captions and announcers replaced regional continuity for nearly a month, and a dearth of new programmes caused by the strike saw ITV hammered in the ratings by the BBC.

Indeed, the absence of ITV, and a particularly good autumn line up on BBC1, saw viewers loyalty to the BBC increase to the point where peak time programming on BBC1 attracted 20 million viewers. ITV would take months to recover from this dispute. Fortunately for ITV, such a massive strike would never occur again, though the eighties did see some notable television strikes

The Musicians Union decided to vent its frustrations on the BBC abolishing such institutions as the Northern Radio Orchestra during a cost cutting exercise by blacking the BBC’s music programmes for ten weeks in 1980. The most obvious victim of this strike was Top of the Pops, which in those days used MU members as part of its “orchestra”.

For ten weeks pop lovers were denied their favourite show until the BBC, worried that the Proms could be cancelled, compromised with the MU. One benefit, to me, of the absence of TOTP was the show’s return coincided with a revamp of the programme that replaced the cheap and dated look of the punk era show with a more New Romantic friendly programme and a bigger budget

At ITV a period of uneasy calm descended after the 1979 strike, but the ACTT was still a powerful institution. The opening of Central’s new studios in 1982 in Nottingham was delayed due to a staffing dispute and Border, yet again, was closed down for three weeks in 1982 due to a dispute over new technology, though fortunately this proved to be the ITV station’s last run in with the ACTT.

Channel 4 was hit by a slightly different type of dispute when it opened, Channel 4 decided that, as it was a minority channel, actors who appeared in their adverts should be paid less than they would on ITV.

Equity, whose actors strike in 1962 caused serious damage to television drama, decided to black Channel 4 adverts. This had the result of adverts being hosted by a company rep in a suit, or no adverts at all. For six months a film of an InterCity 125 was a familiar sight on Channel 4 until a settlement was reached with Equity

1984 showed that, while other unions were being cut down to size by Mrs Thatcher, the television unions could still put out a show of force. (Indeed the leaderene regarded television to be dominated by the unions and grossly overmanned.)

The BBC was hit by a protracted dispute with sceneshifters in the spring of 1984 which saw the making of new programmes being badly disrupted – hardly the best thing to happen during a ratings slump and licence renewal time – and a one day strike which blacked out BBC TV.

This was settled by offering the sceneshifters a rise of 23 per cent. ITV and Channel 4’s attempts to rival the BBC by covering the Olympics in tandem was scuppered at the last minute when negotiations with the ACTT broke down. This was also the prelude to a four-week technicians strike at Thames, which saw the station struggle on with an emergency schedule until the strike collapsed

As the eighties went on, changes in industrial relations law and the end of the closed shop made it more difficult for the unions to stage the kind of action they were capable of in the seventies.

The last major dispute at a television company was the TV-am strike in 1988. When the technicians at TV-am staged a one- day strike over overtime rates, station chairman Bruce Gyngell, a Thatcherite known as Mrs Thatcher’s favourite broadcaster, decide to lock out ACTT members for six months and run the station without them. (Predictably the Sun weighed in during the dispute with stories of technicians earning 75,000 a year for doing nothing, which could not be substantiated.)

At TV-am the absence of the technicians meant the station had to rely on a diet of cartoons, old serials and hopelessly inept camerawork as office staff struggled to handle technical equipment.

Eventually the technicians were allowed back in with reduced terms and conditions, but the ACTT was probably to have the last laugh when the Leaderene’s favourite lost the breakfast franchise in 1992 due to changes in the Broadcasting Act

Since the TV-am strike the only notable disputes have been a series of one-day strikes at the BBC over pay in 1989, which caused some disruption to the BBC but not a total closedown, and a weak one-day strike over working conditions at the BBC in 1994.

As I mentioned earlier changes in the media have weakened the unions and it is unlikely that we will ever see the likes of Alan Sapper again. However, if Sapper and the ACTT were around today, he would have made a concerted effort to save the regional ITV companies and the ABS at the BBC would have tried to halt the worst excesses of Birtism.

However, Sapper and Tony Lennon were working in the limited channel, pre Thatcher world and even their best efforts these days would have limited success as viewers hit by a television strike can, if they have a satellite dish or cable, tune into at least 100 different channels.

On the other hand it would be interesting if satellite television had developed in the seventies, when the ACTT was all powerful, rather than the post Thatcherite nineties, I can imagine the wrangles Rupert Murdoch and the like would have had with the ACTT over new technology and pay differentials between Sky and ITV. (If anyone could consider an article on this, it would make an excellent subject.)

As a postscript to the often-humourless world of industrial relations, technicians at Yorkshire displayed a wicked sense of humour on two occasions. In 1970 a dispute with the ACTT lead to technicians walking out and leaving a handwritten note on a screen, stating, “Yorkshire Television have threatened to sack us, we are going on strike, goodnight.”

On a second occasion, and this is more of a rumour than the truth, though I would love it verified, a Yorkshire technician decided to play the tape of the National Anthem over an upside down photograph of Margaret Thatcher. Wonder if Bruce Gyngell had the offending technician shot.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Alan Caswell 23 July 2015 at 6:23 pm

I think that BECTU was formed by the merger of BETA and ACTT. While BETA, (originally ETA), was formed from a merger of ABS & NATTKE.

Matgo Styles 12 February 2017 at 12:09 am

The TV-am strike ended with them all getting sacked, rather than with them returning to work.

Graham Pearson 19 June 2019 at 12:27 pm

At least a lot of union leaders from the 1980s are glad Margaret Thatcher is dead so that they can wee on her grave.

WILLIAM ADAMS 22 November 2020 at 9:36 pm

GRAHAM PEARSON comment inappropriate as was “Tramp The Dirt Down” by Elvis Costello. Hatred caused her nothing only the haters still pain.

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