Sandy Ross on trade unions at Granada

Let’s just finally talk a little bit if we could about the trade unions because you were active on the shop stewards’ committee

I’ve always thought the problem in the early years with trade unions was quite a big one. Granada was a post entry closed shop in these days. So what that meant was you could come in without being a member of the union but once you were in you had to join the union.

There were three or four unions. So there was the NUJ, most of the journalists in the newsroom and other people as well, at one stage I had an NUJ card. There was the NUJ who essentially ran the newsroom and these were journalists. There was the electricians union who did what it said on the tin, and in some respects were hugely powerful because they could flick a switch. There was NATKE, which was the stagehands, prop hire, technicians. Then there was the ACTT, which were engineers, cameramen, soundmen and producers, directors and researchers. These were the four main unions in the building.

I think probably the problem with trade unions within the ITV system goes right back to the beginning from 1956 when the ITV system was set up. When these people came into the industry they brought with them the model of trade unionism, which had applied in the factory, in the workplace, down the pit. It was a model of them and us, the employers and the trade unions. The trade unions were there to fight for the rights of the workers and not to be exploited by the management. I think what people failed to realise was television was a different kind of industry. I’m a great believer in trade unions but perhaps the industrial model had worked down the pit or in factories, wasn’t quite the right model to work in a much less formal, modern television type setting. But that was what they had. The trade unions applying that same model were hugely powerful. They negotiate with the management, they had this thing called the white book which was all the terms and conditions that were agreed and all sorts of other things agreed with the management. If the management wanted to make changes, these changes had to be negotiated with the unions who always insisted on payments for this, payments for that, changes in this way, changes in that way. Because the companies, at that time, were so successful and making so much money the management were happy, by and large to go along with what the unions asked for. They just threw money, ‘if you want extra for doing this that’s fine’. So you had this white book, which had been agreed between the trade unions and the management on the one side, which set out the basic terms and conditions, basic payments that should be paid.

But you had another almost black economy running alongside it where I don’t think there was anyone in the building who was paid on basic union rates. Separate allowances had been agreed for this, separate allowances had been agreed for that. There is a friend of mine, Professor Alan McKinlay who is now teaching at Newcastle University. Alan has made a speciality of looking at the industrial practices within television. He has written a couple of papers on it and his argument is the management in ITV didn’t manage. They were not managers in the sense you imagine managers running a business. Alan’s argument is that the ‘medieval craft guilds’ which he called the trade unions, ran the companies. They determined for example the size of film crews, the working hours, the break between one shift and another. All that kind of management was done by the unions and ‘the management’ trotted behind or ran fast to keep up with what the unions were suggesting or proposing.

To give an example, you would be the producer of a programme and when you went down into the studio, which you were in charge of, you would walk on to the studio floor but you would have to ask the floor manager for permission. To go on to the studio to speak to a presenter, or an actor or whatever it is you wanted to do you had to ask permission because the floor manager was in charge of that, not you. Theoretically you were in charge of it but actually you weren’t. Similarly if you went into the gallery as the producer you had to ask for permission. If you’d been watching something in your office on set and you thought ‘that doesn’t look right’ you could not touch anything on the studio floor. Seriously in these days if you touched something on the studio floor you risked everybody walking out. I remember once we were doing a comedy programme with Stuart Orne, who I mentioned earlier on, was directing the programme. I was in my office about to watch it on the ring main and nothing happened. I’m thinking ‘what the hell is going on’. Half an hour went past and still nothing had happened. Eventually I went downstairs and I said, “what’s going on? It’s half an hours studio time gone, nothing’s happened.” When Stuart, as the director, had come in the studio, Bruce who was the national treasurer of the ACTT had gone across to him and said “we’re having a spot inspection of union cards, could I see your card please.” So Stuart had to go to his car to find his card and when he’d come in, Bruce knew, because he was the national treasurer, that he was in arrears with his subscription. He said, “we’re not working with you until these arrears have been paid.”

So Stuart then had to go outside, find the chequebook in his car, come back in, write a cheque for the arrears in his subscription and at that point he was allowed to direct in the studio. A whole number of things were happening there. One, Stuart was freelance and freelancers were only just beginning to appear in the stations at that time and the union was very opposed to freelancers. So this was their way of making that point.Two, they were asserting their authority over the director, ‘you don’t without us agreeing’. It was an interesting time.

But then as the technology changed there started to be an awareness that there had to be a come and go between the unions and the management. The strike in 1979 was a real watershed in that sense, I think the unions lost quite a lot of their power when we came back after that because they were forced to accept that things were changing and working practice had to change. ‘Disappearing World’ was an example of that, where the unions had determined the size of crews that would go on a ‘Disappearing World’ shoot. So that if you went to shoot a film in a country where there was no electricity, no roads, no this that or the other, you still had to take a stagehand, an electrician and a driver. So these guys were just along there for the ride. Eventually there was an acceptance that that sort of thing just couldn’t continue.



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