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Union Roundup

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Hollywood generally doesn’t worry about history much, unless there’s money to be made in it (gladiator epics, big screen remakes of ’60s-era TV shows); and America in general doesn’t think about history at all—it’s just another underfunded subject in public schools, where “ancient” means a SuperNintendo system, a vinyl record, or anything that happened before the advent of the internet.And certainly, America—its media and politicians and Wal-Marts—don’t concern themselves with anything that might be called a “labor movement,” which was a notion people only took seriously back in the 1930s, right? And wasn’t that before computers, too?How surprising then that it’s the history-repeating-itself aspects of the American labor movement that have thrust a discussion of work, workers, and wages—and the real effects of the global economy—into the front pages not just of America@work, the AFL-CIO’s in-house magazine, but of the country’s major newspapers, along with the attendant media websites, and in the on-air discussions of perceived pundits.And what is sparking this sudden interest/rediscovery that—somewhere outside the D.C. Beltway—there are people called “workers,” and a few remaining groups called “unions” that represent some of them, is, as you already know, the falling apart of the AFL-CIO.Which has its very own ramifications in Hollywood, where the IA finds itself on one side of the new divide, and the Teamsters find themselves on the other.Most of this came to pass after IATSE revisited a little history of its own, during its quadrennial convention in Hawaii. We won’t go into all the conference details here—the esteemed reporter Jack Egan provides first-hand coverage elsewhere in these pages—but suffice it to say it was a smoothly run affair with little intrigue, and Tom Short, as expected, was returned as IA president (from which perch, he would soon involve himself in the larger AFL-CIO split, about which, more in a moment).A small dissident faction of IAers, led by some of the FTAC—the Film and Television Action Committee—people, and other longterm activists, like DP Haskell Wexler, ASC, attempted to introduce some motions from the floor that didn’t meet with official IA approval, mostly having to do with “fair trade” and its discontents, various hoped-for remedies for same, and one successful measure that had overwhelming support: to commend the IA to get more proactive on “fatigue” as a health issue, since the increasingly long hours experienced by showbiz crew folks have been shown to have damaging health consequences. (This has been a pet issue of Wexler’s, whose friend, camera assistant Brent Hershman, was killed after falling asleep at the wheel after a 19-hour day on the Pleasantville set.)But one bit of labor—and Hollywood—history reasserted itself in a surprising way. This same group of boat-rockers, led by Wexler and Local 728’s (the ’lectric lighting local) own maverick Michael Everett, also proposed that the IA finally delete McCarthy-era language stating no one would be allowed in the union who was with a group ostensibly dedicated to the “violent overthrow of the US Government.”Which meant, actually, any group the government just didn’t like too much. As Wexler said in Hawaii, the then-attorney general of the US “made a list of organizations and those… were what the unions and studios agreed (on) to keep us from working.” Wexler was in one such group; their crime was being in favor of Federal anti-lynching laws.And while Short has since talked of those “dark days” in IA history, and the courts long ago rendered such clauses inoperative—you can’t, in theory, fire someone for their politics anymore—a kind of post-9/11 hysteria still managed to prevail, and the clause was kept on the IA books.In later online comments, Everett, reacting to the charge that the “pro-deletion” faction was bringing “anarchy” to the IA proceedings, noted that “the Red-baiters chose to reach further back in time to the original Reds… specifically the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who espoused the anarchist variant of anarcho-syndicalism.“The IWW was born in 1905 as a reaction to the do-nothing American Federation of Labor (to which the IATSE was affiliated), which refused to organize anyone other than white, native-born, skilled workers. Particularly left out of this mix were newly arrived immigrants, including Jews, Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans.“The Red-baiting against anarchists, socialists, and communists of that era relied on lynching and deportations as their primary tools, and culminated in the infamous Palmer Raids of 1919 conducted by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and a young 25 year-old assistant named J. Edgar Hoover.”What’s fascinating about Everett’s reference to the IWW, aka the Wobblies, or “Wobs,”—who believed in such tsk-tsk tactics as workplace sabotage and even, yes, organizing (and for which a couple of IWW organizers were put to death, on trumped up charges)—and what makes this footnote to what publicly appears to be a very successful, unified IATSE confab an interesting one, is that the labor history he cites perfectly replicates the larger “creative tensions”—to cite a certain Martin Luther King—of the present moment.Which is to say, that “AFL” to which Everett referred is, of course, the very same that would later merge with the CIO (the Congress of Industrial Organizations) as a defensive measure in the 1950s. Why were they on the defensive? There was a Republican congress and administration hostile to labor’s interests, and labor was feeling the effects of the Taft-Hartley act, which President Truman called “a slave labor bill,” and which forbade secondary boycotts, gave the US attorney general the right to forbid a strike for 80 days if it affected the “national interest,” and permitted union shops only after a majority of employees voted on the matter.Among other things.It was a tactical move, which was ironic—especially given the current gyration of the cycle—since the CIO was started in the 1930s by other unions—John L. Lewis’ Mine Workers, and David Dubinsky’s Industrial Ladies Garment Workers, among others—who thought the AFL was being too timid in its organizational tactics.And now you have Andy Stern, head of the SEIU—the Service Employees—with his “Change to Win” coalition, leading a CIO-style charge out of the AFL-CIO, wanting to spend, he says, more time on organizing non-union workers in America, and less time—he says—on electoral politics, a strategy on which re-elected AFL-CIO head John Sweeney was accused of relying too heavily.The Teamsters followed them out—along with the food workers; and Tony Cousimano, president of Local 399, told Union Roundup that “about 40 percent of the membership pulled out (of the AFL-CIO). That’s a statement.”The statement, in Cousimano’s estimation, included a protest against “backing the wrong candidates” in elections, and a desire to free up the money sent the AFL’s way in order to pursue other organizing strategies.But it’s still “business as usual” in Hollywood, Cousimano said. At least for now. On the other side of the new divide, Short no sooner left Hawaii to go to the AFL-CIO’s gathering than he found himself elected a VP of its executive council, making him the first IA rep in that role since 1974, and further tying his fortunes to those of Sweeney’s.All this with the IA’s basic contract coming up for renegotiation soon. Yet in Wexler’s view, in add
itional comments to UR, “the IA never made the transition from the AFL to the CIO” back in the ’30s, in the way it operates as a labor organization.We’ll have more on what he means, what Cousimano may mean by “wrong candidates,” and a little on ol’ Sam Gompers—and the ongoing ramifications of labor’s big split—in our next column.Meanwhile, write Union Roundup: [email protected]

Written by Mark London Williams

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