Roger Bolton

General Secretary of Bectu
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The Independent Online

Roger Bolton, trade unionist and photographer: born Dublin 7 September 1947; photographic assistant, Boots the Chemists 1960-64; photographer, Belgrave Press Bureau 1964-69; photographic technician, BBC TV News 1969-79; organiser, Association of Broadcasting Staff 1979-84; organiser, Broadcasting Entertainment Trades Alliance 1984-93; General Secretary, Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union 1993-2006; married 1974 Elaine Lewis (one daughter); died Woking, Surrey 18 November 2006.

'The sun will now shine on millions of workers including television and film freelancers." In the chill of a wintry February in 2001, the union leader Roger Bolton told the members of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union - Bectu - that they had won a long and bitter battle with the Government.

The British government had excluded workers from accruing their rights to paid annual leave under the Working Time regulations until they had completed a qualifying period of employment of 13 weeks with their employer. As a consequence many workers on short-term contracts and working for a multitude of employers found that their frequent fallow periods were, in fact, their holidays without pay. The victory meant that Bectu became the first trade union ever to take the Government to the European Court and have its policy ruled as unlawful.

It was a powerful blow against the New Labour fetish for US-style deregulated labour markets and Bolton, who held loyalty to his party as the first virtue, took little satisfaction in humiliating a Labour government. It was his unwavering determination and steady nerves that kept the sometimes fissiparous and financially fraught union on course to victory. The risks were high. Failure would have put the union in great danger of financial ruin.

Roger Bolton was born in Dublin in 1947 and came to London as a boy of 10 with his family. He studied photography at the Regent Street Polytechnic and worked as a freelance photographer before finding more secure employment as a photographic technician with the BBC.

He built his reputation as a highly organised and disciplined activist in the news branch of the BBC staff union, the Association of Broadcasting Staff. It was from this base that he became a full-time organiser. His steady advance though the machinery of the trade-union movement was no bureaucrat's progress. It coincided with a period of rapid growth in broadcasting, massive flows of capital and fierce commercial pressures. Bolton was in the centre of a succession of bruising disputes.

The unions faced big obstacles and confronted powerful personalities. They met these challenges with some difficulty but, through a rational merger policy, brought together broadcast staff, technicians in film and television, theatre staff, workers in processing and distribution and managed to hold in membership the dispossessed and sometimes distressed legions of freelancers.

The merged union, Bectu, which Bolton led for 13 years as General Secretary, defied many industry observers - and disappointed some employers - by overcoming sectional differences and by its success in maintaining industrial organisation in the midst of what effectively became the privatisation and commercialisation of public-service broadcasting.

Bolton defeated various contenders for the job of General Secretary and forged notably productive partnerships with Roy Lockett - whom he bested but who became his trusted deputy - and latterly with Gerry Morrissey, the current number two. Such was his authority that the last time he stood for the post no opponent could be found. His reputation was based on the respect his colleagues and the employers had for his shrewdness and negotiating skills and deepened by his personal qualities of modesty and discipline.

A big factor in maintaining the stability of the organisation was the trust he invested in lay elected officials, particularly the talented and mercurial president Tony Lennon. Bolton's willingness to delegate combined with the sharp eye he kept on industry trends and membership moods were an essential part of the mix. He was sensitive to the insecurities of his often precariously employed members but unyielding in defence of trade-union organisation. His contempt for the inflated egos of broadcasters and self-important industry personalities who crossed picket lines was all the more withering because it was understated.

A high point was the 1989 BBC pay battle. Cool nerves, a sharp tactical brain, careful marshalling of his union's precious reserves and a sustained campaign of 13 stoppages took the employers to Acas and resulted in an unprecedented 8.8 per cent pay rise.

Roger Bolton kept a close watch on training and professional development and was a valued board member of the industry's training agency Skillset. He was a member of the British Screen Advisory Council, the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund and a governor of the National Film and Television School.

Diagnosed with cancer in early 2005, he spent many months in hospital. He went back to work the moment his illness was in remission but it returned and he died 10 days ago at home in Woking.

Nick Wright

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