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I Walk the Line

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Later this month casting directors will learn whether they will receive union status via a vote conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.While the outcome of the ballot appears to be a foregone conclusion, simply getting to the point of conducting it and getting the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers to allow it to proceed has dragged on for years. The Alliance had been resistant to the move because it claimed the men and women that work at putting faces on the small and big screen were involved in hiring and therefore ought to be considered part of management. Employing that particular rationale would also exclude such current union members as cameramen that hire crews, production designers that employ property masters or publicists in charge of finding still photographers.However, these particular managers don’t have any financial stake other than a fee. They don’t receive performance bonuses if the network picks up a series they cast or a movie grosses in excess of $100 million. They do their job and move on to the next without benefit of the sort of residual compensation the writer or director of a pilot earns the longer a show continues in production.They also have no standard health or retirement plan, and electing to be part of the Teamsters Local in New York and Los Angeles would certainly ease the financial bite individual casting agencies have experienced establishing personal or office plans.There are several other benefits unionizing affords the group other than simply having a bargaining organization with heft to negotiate contracts. As matters have existed for decades, anyone can hang out a shingle as a casting director and negotiate a fee for that service. There are no minimums other than inapplicable state wage laws directed more appropriately to manual laborers. They have no formal outlet for filing grievances, no means of establishing standards and cannot protest should a fly-by-night outfit win a contract against a signatory company.It’s not clear to me who exactly cast a ballot or what list of criteria was established for eligibility. News reports state that the outcome will affect about 300 people and that a favorable outcome will find them part of a Local currently representing about 4,000 people in such areas as location scouting and transportation. In order to finally secure the vote the Teamsters had to threaten a walk out.Objectively, it’s difficult to begrudge anyone basic working conditions, remuneration, benefits and retirement plans. Casting their lot with drivers and location managers may not be the most homogeneous fit for the talent wranglers but the Teamsters have already amply demonstrated they can guarantee bottom-line results. Time will better reflect whether this faction has issues the union is willing to go the distance on in the name of brotherhood and sisterhood.It would be nice to think there was at least a modicum of altruism involved in this little skirmish. One has to do some heavy squinting to conclude that the prospect of whether 300 people are organized or free agents in the Hollywood infrastructure is palpably significant. More likely the tussle harks back to a time when the unions first engaged the film industry terrain in the 1930s. The studio mindset was adamantly opposed to having employees legally organized and each fought to retain jurisdiction over every inch on the lot… often quite effectively.Fifty years ago about a third of the labor force carried a union card whereas today that percentage is just less than half. The point is not the degree of unseemly exploitation of non-unionized workers. That will always exist to some degree regardless of laws and organizations whose aim is to secure a basic standard of living. The greater consideration is the strength and organization of guilds, unions and the like. Compromise is essential in any working situation as well as with life in general, but the foundation must remain sturdy. It’s the establishment of that bedrock that ensures those working outside the system can expect at least comparable treatment and rewards.The casting directors would not be seeking the haven of union membership had the AMPTP offered an equivalent alternative, and without that option can anyone be surprised with how this drama has evolved? In my book I see George Clooney heading up the Teamsters in the miniseries and James Woods cast as the producer’s rep.

Written by Len Klady

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