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Trades Union

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In 1933 any benefits from the incipient boom in production remained unshared by British film technicians, whose hours were long, whose pay was low, and who felt threatened by an influx of émigrés. Talk of a union, mostly centring on the Gaumont-British studio in Shepherd's Bush, led to a first General Meeting in May, and in June the Association of Cine-Technicians was registered as a trade union. (It is worth noting that the ACT was preceded by the Kine Cameraman's Society, a 'social organisation', not a union as such, founded in 1918.) Initially the membership of around 1,200, entrance fee 2/6d (12 1/2p), looked promising, but it quickly collapsed in the absence of discernible benefits. By the time George Elvin was appointed General Secretary in January 1934, less than a quarter of the 80-odd remaining members were fully paid-up and three months' rent was owed for the office. Although the situation remained precarious, this was a turning point. In May 1935, a journal, the Cine-Technician (later the Film & Television Technician, then Stage Screen & Radio), was being published, while in December 1936 the union affiliated with the TUC and the first industrial agreement was made with Gaumont-British. However, the industry was largely ramshackle. In the absence of employers' federations elusive, fly-by-night producers had to be tackled individually but the Laboratory Branch (1936) increasingly provided industrial clout with the threat of strike.

May 1937 saw Anthony Asquith elected as President, an office he held until his death in 1968. Elvin, Asquith (assisted by his mother, the redoubtable Margot) and the membership at large ran a magnificent campaign to influence the 1938 Cinematograph Films Act, replacing the infamous 1927 'Quota Quickies' legislation and introducing a fair wages clause. After the outbreak of war in 1939, ACT found its standing hugely improved. It was influential in persuading the government that film work was vital to the war effort, and was made the vetting body for 'reserved' technicians (leading not surprisingly to a membership boom). The arrival of peace led to a brief period of full employment, but by 1949 the industry's decline saw an increasing casualisation of labour, which has continued to this day.

Commercial television was introduced into England in 1955. After initial opposition, the union became, in March 1956, the Association of Cinematograph Television & Allied Technicians. The following year agreement was reached with the Programme Contractors Association and for the next thirty years Independent Television membership supplied considerable industrial and financial strength as the film industry measurably shrank.

By the end of the '80s reducing membership (at its peak about 30,000), financial weakness, anti-union legislation, the loss of the closed shop, technological change, Luddite tendencies, industry fragmentation and hostile management were all threatening ACTT's position. Survival required a broader base and in January 1991 the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph & Theatre Union (BECTU) was formed by amalgamation with the Broadcasting & Entertainment Trades Alliance (BETA), itself derived from the Association of Broadcasting Staff (ABS) and the National Association of Theatrical Television and Kine Employees (NATTKE, whose origin dated back to 1890). This successor union represents diverse workers (half of whom are now freelance) in most areas of the cinema, television, video, theatre and leisure activity industries.

Roy Fowler, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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