Tony Garnett • Blog Posts

BECTU

Fighting exploitation in the film & TV industry

BECTU Journal reports excessive hours worked throughout the film and TV industry. Crew drive an hour to the location. For costume and make, for instance, prep has to start well before an 11 hour shooting day. Crew don’t get home till 9 and must leave at 5 the following morning. Buy outs are common, then used to impose long working days. One six day week after another. Takes me back.

First to the 90s and early 2000s. I decided that any shoot over a few weeks should work a five day week. Six was too exhausting for long periods. Crew needed to recuperate, to go home, to reconnect with family and loved ones. Life is more important than art – and a damned sight more important than showbiz. I was told it was impossible to budget a five day week. The show just couldn’t be made. With the help of some good PMs we proved not only that it was possible, but for a long shoot it was cost effective. Everyone was still fresh months into a series. Productivity and quality didn’t fade. They improved.

I was still unhappy about working hours. The director can go home soon after the day’s wrap, but costume, for instance, will have to stay to do laundry, iron clothes for continuity and prepare for the next day. I did what I could but still felt guilty about how hard dedicated crews were expected to work. Most of all I worried about 3rd ADs, just kids, too tired to safely drive home.

Then I thought back to the 60s and my early days in the industry. The Union, BECTU’s predecessor, the ACTT, was strong and militant. The employers and the press were furious, raving about “restrictive practices”. True, there where were some idiotic excesses, but nowhere as bad as the thieving profits and pay of those who complained.Crews were protected by Union agreements and enforced by officials. It was a closed shop. Everyone was a Union member. Unity was strength.

Overtime payments were punishingly high. Very little therefore was called. That was the motive for the rate: not greed, but to make sure crews had a life. I would sit in the pub listening to George Elvin, ACTT’s general secretary, reminisce. He would take me back to the 30s when he was trying to organise the Union. He spoke of Lime Grove studios, where crews were made to work all nighters after a long day. Where sparks on the gantry would fall to their deaths, exhaustion having overtaken them. The exploitation was unbelievable to me, basking in Union protection.

It isn’t unbelievable now. The employers always wanted to revert to the conditions of the 30s. They’re getting their way. “The management’s right to manage” is our daily text. The Thatcher counter revolution proceeds, to the detriment of crews’ health and happiness.
The solution is in the hands of the exploited crews themselves. If they’re not unionised they deserve the exploitation. If they are and their officials are not tough enough, elect more militant ones. In the 60s ACTT there was no such thing as an unofficial strike. If a crew had a problem and refused to work, the Union automatically made the dispute official and brought the whole strength of the Union in support. Employers were consequently on their best behaviour.

It hurts me to hear how cruelly people are treated now, their idealism and love of film making exploited by an industry which knows about price and profit, but has no values.
So get together and fight for your futures, for each other and for a better life.
You will achieve nothing alone.
Unity is strength.

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