A personal view of Thames Television’s industrial relations
There was on old joke that used to go around ITV in the seventies: “What’s the difference between an Arab oil sheikh and an ITV VT operator?”
Answer: “ITV VT operators get London weighting.”
ITV technicians were among the highest paid workers in Britain in the seventies and a whole series of overtime rates and extra payments for unsocial hours ensured that ITV technicians were handsomely rewarded for their efforts.
Rather like their comrades in the car factories and the collieries, members of the ACTT (Association of Cine and Television Technicians) were feared throughout ITV as they could strike at the drop of the hat; and any member who had to stay a minute over his shift immediately demanded overtime pay.
As Michael Grade recalled of the industry in the seventies, “All of us were demeaned by the necessity of adding bribes to high wages to get technicians to work.”
In the recent TV series recalling 50 years of ITV, Grade also recalled a story where technicians were offered cash in hand payments to finish off the recording of a show as they threatened to walk out at 10pm prompt rather than finish a little later to complete the recording of a programme.
Of course, the technicians knew that ITV in the seventies was the most popular broadcaster in Britain, the larger companies like Thames were extremely wealthy and could therefore afford to acquiesce to the union’s demands or face blank screens and lose advertising revenue (as happened in the pay strike of 1979), and held the upper hand.
After all, I would imagine the ACTT believed that if owning an ITV contractor was a licence to print money, then its members should share in the profits.
While it is probably an exaggeration to say Thames VT operators earned the same as the Shah of Iran, it was recognised throughout the industry that the technicians were very well rewarded.
However, industrial relations at Thames were never good despite the high wages and benefits enjoyed by ACTT members.
On Thames’s opening day on July 30, 1968, technicians, in common with their colleagues at other ITV contractors, staged a lightning strike, which saw a Tommy Cooper show switched off after 15 minutes and the evening’s schedule replaced by a caption and music.
For three weeks Thames was hit by a series of guerrilla strikes, which crippled the company and eventually saw an emergency national service replace Thames programmes.
The strikes, which had been called by the ACTT as the union was worried about its members’ pay and conditions under the new contractors, were resolved by offering the ACTT a seven per cent pay rise.
While an uneasy relationship developed between Thames and the ACTT, with the former treating the latter very cautiously, industrial relations began to worsen during the seventies.
A two-week strike by technicians shut down the whole of ITV in the summer of 1975, the technicians being bought off with a huge 35 per cent pay rise.
Thames itself was hit by a strike by production assistants that nearly brought down the whole of ITV during May 1977. Thirty production assistants at the Teddington studios refused to operate new video equipment during the filming of the hit series Rock Follies: the assistants demanded an extra £800 a year to operate the equipment.
Thames then announced it was sacking the technicians as they were in breach of contract for refusing to use the equipment, one of the few occasions Thames decided to get tough with the ACTT.
A Thames spokesman told the Evening Standard on May 23, “The production assistants were warned that unless they returned to normal, they will be deemed to have terminated their employment with us.”
The dispute with the ACTT soon began to badly affect the Teddington studios, where the bulk of Thames networked programmes were made. Programmes such as a five a side football tournament, children’s programmes and two popular variety shows were cancelled.
Both sides refused to back down, the ACTT stating its members should receive their £800 and Thames declaring the pay demand to be unrealistic and a breach of the government’s incomes policy. However, the strike began to cripple Thames, whose recorded output was severely disrupted, and the ACTT decided to threaten an all out strike across ITV if the production assistants were not reinstated.
When Thames lost its coverage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee on June 8 to industrial action, and the strike threatening to spread, emergency talks began between Thames and the ACTT.
On June 10 negotiations began on ending the dispute. Thames decided not to press ahead with dismissing the production assistants and the ACTT backed down on threats to widen the dispute.
With the strike costing the station a quarter of a million pounds, and the station’s programmes being disrupted, the company offered the production assistants a final offer of £600. On June 15 the production assistants accepted the offer and returned to work.
According to the Evening Standard, Thames was desperate for the dispute to end, as the station had a massive backlog of programmes to be edited and was a big exporter of shows to America and Australia.
As the seventies wore on, industrial relations in television hit a low ebb. The replacement of film by video led the ACTT to black £2million worth of new technology, as the union feared this would lead to job losses, leading Alan Sapper of the ACTT to comment, “£2million of unused equipment lying unused? Good, that’s a victory for us.”
The BBC was also hit by a series of strikes in December 1978, which nearly led to its Christmas schedule being wiped out, and Border Television was closed down for four weeks in a dispute over new technology.
1979 saw industrial relations at Thames and ITV in general hit a new low. Following the Winter of Discontent, which saw public sector workers win pay awards of up to 20 per cent, the ACTT decided to press ITV for a similar amount. The ITV contractors refused and an overtime ban began on August 6.
At 2207, Thames technicians decided to switch off the power at Euston Road, leading to a blackout, and when the management decided to switch the power back on, the technicians walked out on strike.
The strike at Thames became a national strike on August 10, as the ACTT told its members to stage an all out strike in support of a pay rise of 15 to 20 per cent.
This became the most famous strike in television history, lasting for ten weeks and causing huge damage to ITV. The strike also marked the zenith of union power at ITV.
The IBA, seeing that the strike was dragging on indefinitely, and causing financial problems to the ITV contractors, who were losing advertising revenue due to blank screens, advised the contractors to give in to the union’s demands.
Michael Grade commented on this, “The IBA believed the public interest was best served by keeping the screen alive, so we must accommodate the unions at whatever cost to ourselves.”
The ACTT was bought off with a 22 per cent pay rise in return for concessions on using new technology and the strike ended on October 24, with Thames hosting a national ITV service that lasted for three weeks as ITV struggled to return to normal.
The long strike had also proved damaging in ratings terms, as viewers, after an initial bout of anger at losing their favourite ITV shows, became used to the BBC and seemed slow to return to ITV after the strike ended.
While this was the last time ITV nationally would be brought down by industrial action, at a regional level the ACTT proved it still was a force to be reckoned with, causing disruption at Central and Border.
Again Thames, the most affluent ITV contractor, would face problems with the union in the eighties. Thames was given the responsibility of producing ITV and Channel 4’s coverage of the 1984 Olympics.
As ITV’s coverage of the Olympics in previous years had been non-existent, as in 1976, or half hearted, as in 1980, Thames decided to spend millions on its Olympics coverage.
Unfortunately, three weeks before the games were due to start, the ACTT threatened industrial action over staffing levels and overtime rates, and Thames decided to withdraw its coverage at a cost of £5million.
This dispute was a precursor to a one-month strike by technicians at Thames over overtime rates. The station was blacked out on the August Bank Holiday, leading the ITV regions to introduce an emergency schedule (Tyne Tees put in place an old western and imports, typical Tyne Tees emergency programming) as Thames had responsibility for network programming that day.
However, Thames management decided to set up an emergency schedule and run the station themselves; while this was less than satisfactory for the viewers, at least the station was kept on the air.
Seeing that the station could be (sort of) run without them, the technicians decided to call off their strike after four weeks and returned to work.
How much did a Thames technician earn in those days? An article about the dispute in the Sunday Times, which quoted that a Thames technician’s average earnings were £24,000 a year, the equivalent of £50,000 or more today.
While very good in those days, when the average was around £9000 a year, the technicians certainly were not earning telephone number salaries, as some newspapers would have its readers believe.
As Thames was regarded as a cash cow in those days, it charged the highest advertising rates on ITV and served some of the most affluent areas of Britain, it was only fair that its staff received high salaries.
After all, the company regarded itself as being like a commercial BBC and obviously paying high wages would help it retain good staff.
However, it was certainly true that the militancy and restrictive practices of the ACTT had caused serious problems at Thames. The station had lost millions through abandoning the Olympics and strikes such as the 1979 walkout had caused huge damage to ratings and revenue.
This had not gone unnoticed by Thames management and Margaret Thatcher, who regarded television as a last bastion of trade union power.
In the latter half of the decade, Thatcherite employment laws, such as outlawing the closed shop, which had given the ACTT so much power, and the introduction of secret ballots before industrial action could be called, weakened the unions.
Also the introduction of new technology saw a reduction in the numbers of technicians required to operate it.
The ACTT itself began to lose influence and was finally humiliated in the TV-am strike in 1988, when the station ran itself without technicians for three months.
In 1989 the ACTT merged with the BBC unions, the ABS and BETA, due to falling membership and fading influence.
The last gasp of union power at Thames came in October 1991 when it was announced that the station had lost its franchise, with the loss of 1400 jobs.
The unions threatened industrial action against coverage of the Rugby Union World Cup, but the threat came to nothing as the unions realised Thames could not be saved.
While the television unions had often been at loggerheads with Thames management, the threat of industrial action in 1991 to save their company showed that, despite past disputes, the unions actually cared about Thames and wanted to save it.
Unfortunately Thames died on December 31, 1992, and was replaced by the vastly inferior Carlton, where the unions became virtually non-existent and programmes became far worse.
While it would be wrong to say Thames had an appalling industrial relations record, the station was more prone to disputes than a contractor like Grampian.
Due to Thames being the most affluent ITV contractor, and a desire for staff to remain at the top of the earnings league, the unions were quite prepared to use industrial action if they saw their position threatened.
Of course, in the pre-Thatcher era, unions were far more powerful and strikes in general were a far more favoured weapon than they are now.
The ACTT at Thames was probably no different to unions in other industries at the time, but a growing resentment by management to the union’s restrictive practices, which remained in place well into the eighties, led to its downfall.