|This article is written
from the Real World
point of view.
The 1979 ITV strike was the longest, costliest and bitterest dispute in the history of the ITV companies.
For much of the 1970s Britain suffered high inflation rates (peaking at 24.2% in 1975) which meant high pay claims by workers, despite encouragement and even legal restrictions from various governments to restrain pay and thus supposedly break the inflationary cycle.
The ITV companies were highly profitable throughout this period, constantly beating the BBC in the weekday ratings and consequently receiving large amounts of advertising revenue. They had to deal with several unions at this time including the usually moderate EETPU (Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union who handled electronics in the studios), NATTKE (National Association of Theatrical, Television and Kine Employees) and the ACTT (Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians) led by the militant left-winger Alan Sapper.
In 1979 (when the annual inflation rate was 13.4%) the ITV companies made a 9% pay offer. The unions rejected this, wanting 25% and claiming that their members' pay over recent years had been eroded by inflation. On 23rd July the EETPU and NATTKE unions carried out a national one-day strike which led to all regions being blanked out except for Westward Television (whose members voted not to strike) and Channel Television. In the other companies EETPU members had switched off equipment that ACTT members refused to switch back on and operate and therefore no television programmes could be made or broadcast.
By 6th August negotiations had dragged on for several weeks with only staff at Southern Television voting to accept the pay offer which had been increased to 15% on 30th July. EETPU continued its actions by working-to-rule which effectively meant refusing to work overtime (of which they usually worked many hours) and matters reached a crisis point on that day when ACTT members at Thames Television refused to work alongside management who manned the controls usually taken by EETPU members. The next day the ACTT Shop Steward and his two deputies were suspended and as a result all ACTT members walked out, blanking out the station. A similar incident occurred at HTV when lighting rigs in studios were set up by management instead of EETPU members and ACTT staff refused to work in a "potentially unsafe" studio. This was taken as withdrawal of labour without a ballot by station management and all the staff were suspended and locked out on 8th August. Despite locally voting for the offer Southern Television had also been blacked out on 6th August when EETPU staff refused to work overtime but the station was back the next day when management switched on the controls, without interference by ACTT staff.
Both sides started to dig in their heels and refused compromise. ITN staff walked-out on 9th August and the entire network, save for Channel Television, was blacked out by Friday 10th. Channel Television had an independent agreement with the unions who recognised that even a short period of strike action would probably mean the collapse of this small financially precarious station. Attempts at arbitration failed on 14th August and ITV management threatened a lockout by 23rd August if staff didn’t return to work – effectively sacking them.
The ACTT refused to negotiate further and the strike dragged on for ten weeks with all ITV screens across the country displaying a message saying that no transmissions would take place until further notice. Only Channel television, with a diet of local programmes and films, continued to broadcast.
Finally, on 22nd October, management increased the pay offer to 17.5% backdated to 1st July with a promise of 7.5% in January 1980 and 15% in July but they wanted concessions such as revised working practices and the adoption of ENG (Electronic News Gathering) by staff which was deemed necessary to modernise news coverage. This was accepted although local and not national negotiation of the adoption of ENG was stressed. Alan Sapper also was aware that the first renewal of the ITV franchises since 1968 was due in 1981 and he wanted a repeat of a no-redundancy clause to be in place should any stations lose their licence.
ITV eventually came back on the air at 5.45pm on Wednesday 24th October with both Coronation Street and Crossroads showing specially recorded prologues to remind viewers of the story so far. While Crossroads had Noele Gordon speaking to camera, Coronation Street had a filmed scene on the outdoor set of Bet Lynch and Len Fairclough meeting on the street and discussing recent events mostly "in character" although Adamson did break the "fourth wall" at the end of the scene and speak directly to viewers. The shooting was covered by cameras from ITN, the two actors were also interviewed for that evening's bulletins as well as posing for Fleet Street press photographs.
The strike was costly in terms of revenue and lost wages and its effects on other people not involved in the dispute such as actors and journalists at TV Times who were unable to publish during the strike period. Many staff took secondary jobs to supplement their income and this led to some strange and embarrassing incidents such as one ATV technician working as a waiter and having to serve executives of his own company who were meeting for lunch. For the BBC the strike was a double-edged sword as they enjoyed record viewing figures (and for several weeks after the strike ended continued to enjoy a lead over ITV in the viewing figures) but faced harsh criticism over the number of peak-time repeats they broadcast, particularly in August before they started their Autumn season.
The strike was also the end of an era in a way that wasn’t apparent to anyone at the time. Earlier in the year, Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister after the disastrous "Winter of Discontent" endured by James Callaghan and she had a strong public mandate to "tame the unions". Legislation outlawed closed shops, secondary picketing and made secret ballots compulsory. Alan Sapper’s final test of strength was in 1987 against TV-AM and their refusal to accept what they deemed to be "restrictive practises". Bruce Gyngell, the head of the station, was made of sterner stuff than his 1979 counterparts and eventually the company won the dispute. These actions, along with many changes brought about by the growth of small independent television makers, particularly after the start of Channel Four in 1982 meant that the television unions never again had the clout that they enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s. To date ITV has never since faced a national blackout due to industrial action and Coronation Street has only once since had its transmission delayed because of industrial action when Episodes 2282 and 2283, scheduled for Monday 14th February and Wednesday 16th February 1983 were shown on the Wednesday and the Thursday of the same week due to action by the EETPU.