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Union Roundup

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“These men were trying to buy homes, mortgages on homes, children in school. They lived in fear of getting transferred, losing money on their homes, as they usually did… so they wanted another memorandum written to get us out of the trouble that we were in.”We’re observing a small but noticeable “best of times, worst of times” moment here at Union Roundup: It’s Martin Luther King’s birthday, and it’s also Golden Globes day. All of West LA is enmeshed in more-hellish-than-usual traffic due to the street closures. We won’t speak overmuch of the Globes, since below-the-liners, in the main, find themselves slighted there.But as the mainstream press, in its dutiful/predictable/giddy way spends most of its time covering said Globes this evening, there were also some significant moments marking the birthday holiday of the late, great Dr. King. Chief among those was a fiery speech given by Al Gore (yes, fiery and Al Gore in the same sentence!), taking our current president to task for accruing to himself powers usually demanded by dictators and kings, while using a permanent state of warfare as the excuse.As ever, truth is among the first casualties in such times, and in the quote leading this column, Gore was in turn citing an FBI man from the early 1960s who was telling of the price to be paid for going against FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s demand that Dr. King be termed a “communist,” even though there were no discernable ties between America’s civil rights movement and Soviet or Chinese-dispatched “agitators,” nor was King himself a member of the communist party.But the price for going against pre-fab, government-created “truth” was the loss of a job, quickly followed by loss of a mortgage, and really, a whole way of life.Your material comforts could be “disappeared,” as it were, if you rocked the boat too much.The observation is not insignificant for labor leaders at the present juncture, including those in Hollywood.We’ve been writing of the basic agreement reached by IATSE and the AMPTP last month, well in advance of their collective contract expiring this summer. Such news would seem to augur well in Hollywood labor land—both sides prove themselves malleable, flexible, and the IA even addressed the real hot button issues of the moment—not wages, but pensions and health care. (Though according to a paper by the Economic Policy Institute, released last month, “inflation-adjusted hourly and weekly wages are still below where they were at the start of the recovery in November 2001. Yet, productivity—the growth of the economic pie—is up by 13.5 percent.”)How well the IA addressed all this—i.e., will the small wage gains, and pension contributions keep up with inflation—remains to be seen.In the same report from the EPI, authored by Lawrence Mishel and Ross Eisenbrey, it is noted that “employers are cutting back on health insurance. Last year, the percent of people with employer-provided health insurance fell for the fourth year in a row. Nearly 3.7 million fewer people had employer-provided insurance in 2004 than in 2000. Taking population growth into account, 11 million more people would have had employer-provided health insurance in 2004 if the coverage rate had remained at the 2000 level.”Employers (read: corporations, read: the multinational concerns that now own all the studios) are trying to wiggle out of being the “private sector” solution, and the US remains the only Western-style “democracy” without any kind of public healthcare. And as costs rise, the problem will get worse.So, too, will the pension issue. Early in this new year, Rick Wolff, writing for the left-leaning site Znet, posted a salutary article on the looming pension disasters—and notably, he cites Forbes in the article. Among the excerpts:“Fearing that a desperate population might eventually demand that they actually pay for promised pensions, corporations are ending pensions, often by not offering them to new employees. In 1980, roughly 40 percent of private-sector jobs had pension benefits; today less than 20 percent do. Major US corporations with unfunded pension obligations… have increasingly used bankruptcy laws to avoid them… Other companies face situations not so different from that of Ford Motor Company, whose unfunded pension obligations as of December 31, 2003, totaled $11,689,000,000, while the total value of Ford Motor Company on that date was $89,000,000 less than that (Bernard Condon, “The Coming Pension Crisis,” Forbes, 12 August 2004).”The article goes on to note that the government agency charged with overseeing pensions, the PBGC, “cannot pay for present—let alone anticipated future—failures by private corporations to pay their pension obligations. The PBGC already has a deficit exceeding $30 billion. Without the money it needs to pay for the pensions it insured, the PBGC will now likely add new demands on federal tax revenues.”Except that we’re in a state of permanent warfare, remember? Which would seem to mean “permanent deficit” as well.Despite the modest gains won by IATSE, guaranteed until 2009, other Hollywood guilds will probably have a tougher time making substantial headway on these issues.When the above-the-liners come back and sober up from tonight’s Globe festivities, they’ll find some busy contract work ahead of them: especially in SAG and the WGA. While new technologies and cable agreements are among the issues on the docket in the near term, along with DVD residuals, look for pension and health care to be straws on various camels’ backs as bottom lines are assessed by both employers and employees.The question will be how to organize for these fights—increasingly, it will be a larger question than just something an individual union, or industry, can “win” for its workers.And add just one economic monkey wrench—China calling in its considerable debt markers and crashing the dollar, or a war in Iran sending gas to five bucks a gallon and sending the American financial system back toward “tilt”—and all those employers, expected to cover for the government on health and pension issues, will be crying “poor.”For as long, perhaps, as we are in this “permanent state of war.”Beyond that, the lesson for MLK day—and especially in light of recent revelations that the NSA has been spying on, perhaps, millions of Americans—is that making a stand for yourself, and your rights, makes you, in the eyes of authority, automatically suspicious.Labor battles may once again become as fraught with personal risk as they were back in the ’20s and ’30s (though to be sure, different kinds of risks: You might not get beaten by thugs on picket lines, but an electronic “dossier” will be quietly assembled on you. How might it affect your credit rating, say? Your overall material comfort level?).Best of times, worst of times. We’ll find out, as this new year becomes more and more familiar, which category Tinsel Town’s labor negotiations will fall into, as the “picture business” finds itself less and less insulated, as in times past, from the economic realities affecting the entire country, or indeed, the world.Write Union Roundup:

Written by Mark London Williams

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