Margaret Thatcher, UK trades unions and my first job in television production

An NUJ card was easier to get than an ACTT card

I had an NUJ card because I wrote words

Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister in 1979.

In 1979, I was working at ATV in Birmingham as a Scriptwriter in their Promotion Dept. I had to be in the NUJ (the National Union of Journalists) because I wrote scripts. I wrote scripts for the announcers but I could not edit promotion trailers because that area of work was controlled by the ACTT, the technical union for film & TV workers.

It was impossible to work in specific jobs in TV without being in the appropriate union.

In 1979, I realised that 14th November 1980 would be the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry by German aircraft. The raid destroyed 75% of the city. So I suggested to Brian Lewis, head of documentaries, that ATV should film a programme about the raid. Coventry was in the ATV region.

He was interested in the idea and asked me to do some preliminary research on the background to a documentary film, but made it clear that I could not be employed or credited as a researcher on any production, because I was a member of the NUJ, not the ACTT.

At the time, the ACTT seemed more of a protection racket than a union. The employers had to do what the unions demanded or their TV signal would be taken off air and the TV companies would make no money. The workers had to pay the union money in order to work. If you were not a union member, you were not allowed to work. Most television and film work was a closed shop and there was a Catch-22. You could not get specific jobs unless you had a union card. It was highly difficult to get a union card without already having the specific job.

I did some preliminary research for the Coventry film and talked to director John Pett who had been assigned to the project. ATV, being an honest company, paid me for my work. But I could not work on the production and got no credit. That was fine. That was the way things worked at the time.

The hour-long documentary was made, with two ACTT researchers working on the production. It was transmitted on the ITV network as Moonlight Sonata in 1980.

The ACTT - more of a protection racket than a union

ACTT – more protection racket than union

Eventually, I managed to get an ACTT union card as a Researcher by getting a job on the ATV children’s TV series Tiswas.

Much later, I was able to get a coveted ACTT card as a Director in the Promotions Dept at Central, the successor to ATV. It was a long, complicated and slightly Byzantine process to get the card. At around the same time, Margaret Thatcher stopped union ‘closed shops’.

So I needed an ACTT director’s card to work as a director… I eventually got one… but, by the time I actually got a director’s card, I could have worked without having one.

Margaret Thatcher destroyed the unions’ closed shops.

Good for her.

And good everyone else except the power-crazed union bosses of the time.

Now she is dead. Her funeral is today.

So it goes.

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Filed under Politics, Television

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