Filed in: Featured, Television, Union Roundup
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Union Roundup: 1000 Ways to Kill A Union

March 7, 2012 | By

Original Productions summarily fired the crew of 1000 Ways to Die after they voted unanimously to unionize.

This column was written on the night of “Super Tuesday,” the frenzied multi-state primary night that allows the media to cover the who’s up/who’s down aspects of electioneering in America, rather than getting distracted by things like policies, legislation and such.

At the moment, it’s still unclear whether Mitt Romney’s “inevitability” train will at last huff out of the GOP station, or if Rick Santorum can catch up to him again.

It’s a race where the charge of being a “Big Labor Republican” is – if it sticks – a fatal blow. Never mind the utterly oxymoronic aspects of the label, “Big Labor” scarcely even applies to Democratic candidates anymore. Indeed, Newt Gingrich tried to label Rick Santorum as one, just the other day in Tennessee – a state which Santorum won last night.

“He voted for the unions over FedEx,” said Gingrich. “I suspect most folks in the state don’t know that. But in fact he was a Big Labor Republican in Pennsylvania and I suspect when you get to Memphis and you say to people, ‘Gee, this is a guy who wanted to guarantee that FedEx gives in to the unions,’ Santorum won’t be as popular the following morning.”

Gingrich was referring to a series of mid-’90s procedural votes, but as Politifact’s Truth-o-Meter reports, the union in question here was none other than the Teamsters. So the Politifact folks thought, “we’d get the thoughts of the ‘Big Labor’ voice with the most to win or lose in this 1996 struggle – The International Brotherhood of Teamsters.”

Did the Teamsters consider Santorum a “Big Labor Republican?”

“’Absolutely not,’ said director of communications Bret Caldwell. ‘Any vote that he had that might have been in favor of labor would likely have been cast for other reasons. We worked very hard, successfully, to defeat him six years ago, and we would never consider Santorum as a friend of labor.'”

It’s a union that’s come a long way since it’s unvarnished support for Richard Nixon, in election seasons past. Of course, even the AFL-CIO’s George Meany – while not explicitly endorsing Nixon – did explicitly not endorse George McGovern, when he was the Democratic nominee. It was an overall strategy of labor, which in hindsight, reveals they were led to pick wrong sides in the “culture war” of the time. Given how union membership and labor policies have fared in the wake of Nixon’s – and subsequent Republican – administrations, it wasn’t a policy that ultimately resulted in what Charlie Sheen might call “winning.”

Which brings us to the present juncture here in Hollywood. Teamsters and their IA counterparts have begun walking picket lines in a burst of old-fashioned “picketing until the workers can unionize” tactics.

As most readers know, it happened with Original Productions, who provides “reality” programming for several cable networks, including History’s Ice Road Truckers and Discovery’s Deadliest Catch. The show in question this time was Spike TV’s 1,000 Ways to Die, where crew members had voted to let the IA represent them, as the union said, “securing them benefits, safe working conditions and collective bargaining rights.”

The IA and Local 399 picketers Tweeted a few days later that they “hope y’all didn’t forget about us: Still no contract, ‘1000 Ways to Die’ crew pickets…” and they provided the Burbank address of Original, whose response to the whole imbroglio was to shut down production. Spike later claimed the show was done for the season anyway, so perhaps the idea is to try and wait out the picketers and hope they’ll go home, or stay shuttered until the production company can figure out how to outsource the work.

The LA Weekly’s blog carried some good reporting from the front lines, mentioning an art department coordinator, Marcella Brennan, who “signed a union card on Wednesday, Feb. 22. She and other crew members who signed cards were fired the next day.”

“‘I called them and I said, ‘Hey guys, I signed one of those,’ and they said, ‘Oh, OK, well you should go grab all your stuff right now – cause you’re fired,’” she recounted.

The picket line interview noted that she was paid a flat $900 a week for upwards of 80-90 hours of work – with, of course, no overtime.

Jonathan Hanrahan, a transportation captain who’d worked on other non-union shows, was quoted in the same piece saying, “there really isn’t a decent future in non-union film work.”

Of course, the whole question of a decent future for the former middle class – and those still aspiring to get into it – is what hangs in the balance now, economically speaking?

And while the Teamsters and AFL-CIO have of course weaned themselves from supporting shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot GOP candidates, there’s no guarantee election endorsements and phone banking for theoretically more sympathetic Democratic candidates will always pay off. Witness, for example the card check law that came out of Washington in the wake of Obama’s first victory.

Or rather, the one that didn’t. As Jane Hamsher wrote of the Employee Free Choice Act, on Firedoglake site, “The fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) over the course of the past year and a half has been largely determined by the White House. Rahm Emanuel would not let it come up for a vote until after health care was passed, and by that time the Democrats no longer had 60 votes in the Senate.”

There’s more – she mentioned the Dems were trying to steer clear of the whole thing to help Harry Reid and Arlen Specter in their re-election bids – but the point is, you can’t really be guaranteed that even the politicians you help elect will give you a bully pulpit. Just ask the environmentalists about that.

So it’s back to organizing shops and walking picket lines as the tactics du jour. Whether they have more efficacy than phone banking at election time, we’ll probably find out. An economy – and workers’ movements – have their own “1,000 ways to die,” usually by small steps.

Hopefully life can be breathed into both. Spring, after all, is almost here.

Write: mark.williams@btlnews.com

For more, visit: IATSE, Teamsters and L.A. AFL-CIO to Picket 1000 Ways To Die.