Alan Sapper

Hard-hitting trade-union leader


Alan Louis Geoffrey Sapper, trade unionist: born London 18 March 1931; botanist, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1948-58; Assistant General Secretary, Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians 1958-64, Deputy General Secretary 1967-69; General Secretary, 1969-91; General Secretary, Writers' Guild of Great Britain 1964-67; member, General Council, Trades Union Congress 1970-84, chairman 1982; founder and chief executive, Interconnect AV 1991-2000; married 1959 Helen Rubens (one son, one daughter); died London 19 May 2006.

Alan Sapper was once feared by television company employers as one of the trade union movement's top firebrands. He was general secretary of the television technicians' union, the small but powerful Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT), from 1969 until 1991.

He was loved and loathed in equal measure, but was one of the most popular left-wingers within the trade-union family for three decades. Many of the traditional "blue collar" union leaders like Arthur Scargill (miners), Jack Jones (transport and general workers) and Hugh Scanlon (engineers) were often hard pushed to upstage him when it came to backing left-wing causes at home and abroad. Employers regarded him as "aggressive and unpleasant" and he often remarked with understatement: "There are people who do not seem to like me."

He had amazing drive, energy and commitment, was amusing company, was very articulate, and was a powerful orator who addressed mass meetings with an educated air of authority. He could easily have been mistaken for a head teacher or a lawyer and was one of the TUC's "fixers" when it came to embarrassing problems within the brotherhood and sisterhood. The fact that he was respected by both the left and right wings of the trade union movement was a tribute to his own communication skills and personality.

Sapper was always immaculately attired and under his leadership ACTT members were soon among the highest-paid workers in Britain. Moderate union chiefs were uncomfortable with his militancy and hard-hitting speeches, but none had the courage to criticise him publicly. Like another white- collar union leader, the late Clive Jenkins, Sapper enjoyed the good life and was a frequent visitor to some of the West End's finest restaurants.

He was born in Hammersmith, west London, in 1931, the youngest of three sons of Max and Kate Sapper, née Willams, a former suffragette. His elder brother, Laurie, went on to become leader of the Association of University Teachers. Alan Sapper attended Brackenbury Road Primary School in Hammersmith, then Latymer Upper School, and later studied at evening classes at London University.

Sapper had developed an interest in plants during his childhood on London bombsites, where he noticed that the fireweed was always the first to grow after the Blitz. He worked as a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1948 until 1958, where he identified many new ferns. He was a keen trade union activist while at Kew and was a branch official with the former Institution of Professional Civil Servants (now Prospect). He complained that his union work cost him promotion, and he sought work elsewhere.

Sapper joined the ACTT as Assistant General Secretary in 1958, a post he held for six years until 1964, when he left to become General Secretary of the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. He always enjoyed writing, and tried his hand at screenplays, poetry, radio dramas and scripts. He returned to the ACTT in 1967 as Deputy General Secretary, before landing the top job in 1969.

He was proud to be elected a member of the TUC General Council from 1970 to 1984 and was TUC chairman in 1982. After only two years on the General Council he demanded a 24-hour general strike in support of five jailed London dockers known as the "Pentonville Five". In this attempt he failed, but the Government found a legal way of freeing the men once they realised they faced insurrection from a hostile TUC.

Sapper urged General Council colleagues to break off talks with the Tory government on the economy and in 1973 unsuccessfully urged the TUC to lead a one-day strike against the government's pay restraint policy. In 1975, he led a 72-hour strike of technicians working in 16 independent television companies, an ugly spat which saw many of his members locked out.

The ITV network suffered its own "Winter of Discontent" in 1979 when Sapper's union pulled the plugs on television screens for 10 weeks. The blackout was a major victory for Sapper, who led his members out on strike in support of a better deal which took the average wage of a technician from £8,000 to £11,620. Michael Grade later mused ruefully that employers had a "medieval servitude" to the ACTT. Sapper's personal Waterloo arrived when he failed to enforce his union's terms and conditions at the new TV-AM in 1982.

Although many of his union members were traditionally moderate in their views and behaviour, they all respected Sapper as a fine leader and outstanding negotiator. When it came to a trial of strength with the management or government of the day, they tended to give their leader their overwhelming support. His enjoyment at winning, whether it be in politics, debating or fun, made him one of the TUC General Council's better cricketers.

Unlike left-wing union leaders who professed to despise the media, Sapper realised the importance of having the media on his side, and he befriended industrial correspondents at all Fleet Street papers. He was never a "rent-a-quote" union chief, but was always accessible to journalists. He was at ease with media men and women because he regarded himself as a "would-be reporter", and was keen to reprimand journalists if he thought they had "got the wrong end of the stick". He also reminded them that he had written a play for television in 1961 called The Return, a play described by his family as "Osbornesque".

Sapper was a rare breed of union leader appointed by his union, and not elected. He was a keen member of his local Labour Party, and believed in getting the best wages for his members at whatever the cost to employers, who wined and dined him at every opportunity, while cursing him privately. He declared there was "nothing wrong with supping with the devil" if it meant a good deal for his membership. He enjoyed inviting employers' negotiators to meet him at fashionable Soho restaurants near his office, and invariably left them holding the bill.

He held many other posts during his career, serving as President of the Confederation of Entertainment Unions from 1970 until 1991 and of the International Federation of Audio-Visual Workers, 1974-94. He was a governor of the British Film Institute, 1974-94, and of the National Film School, 1980-95; and a director of Ealing Studios from 1994 until his death.

In 1991 he was successful in merging the ACTT with another union to form Bectu, the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union. After leaving ACTT, he set up Interconnect AV, a company aimed at supporting British film-making. He retired in 2000.

Terry Pattinson

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