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Union Roundup


So, in light of the election—or, if the growing news about vote-counting coming out of Ohio and Florida is to be believed—the seeming election, we at Union Roundup have been discussing the “particularism” of Hollywood labor guilds, something that applies both above and below the line. Which is to say, in an era where only around 10 percent of the workforce in America is unionized, what keeps Hollywood one of the few remaining areas—like professional sports—where a “strike” might have some impact?The answer is that, as with sports, to work in Hollywood requires specialized skill sets, whether you’re pulling focus, setting up lights, or applying latex and spirit gum in a makeup trailer.Of course, for a long time, knowing “someone”—not just the skills involved—didn’t hurt, either. This applied to both above and below-the-liners.But things are shifting for Hollywood’s labor force: the question of “skill sets” changing in a digital age has yet to reach critical mass, let alone resolution (if I can “render” a costume in a computer, can I join costumers’ local?). And the issue of “outsourcing,” as film skills get further disseminated around the globe, has rather infamously affected Hollywood and now, its neighbor to the north, as production dwindles in Canada.So even though, as these words are being written, the high-profile role of unions in Hollywood is being underscored by the news-blacked-out talks between SAG/AFTRA and the producers about the ongoing issue of slicing the DVD residual pie a little differently, there still is ample cause to wonder—worry—about whether guilds here will become as feckless, frankly, as they have pretty much everywhere else in America.Last issue, we touched on a somewhat vague but well-meaning piece by AFL-CIO head John Sweeney, on the “whither labor?” question in light of having a hostile executive branch, Congress, and judiciary arrayed against it. This column of UR excerpts a provocative piece running in the December 23 issue of The Nation (and available at, by Barbara Ehrenreich (of Nickel and Dimed in America fame) and Thomas Geoghegan. Called “Lighting Labor’s Fire,” it has some challenging ideas.Setting up the problem, they write how ’60s-era organizing language was “quickly co-opted by management, with its stress on the ‘right to work’ and the ‘right’ to have a say in how one’s dues are spent. Company anti-union propaganda, as at Wal-Mart, for example, claims that a union will deprive the individual of his or her individual access to management. Never mind that management retains its right to fire nonunion workers at will.Noting that “the AFL-CIO has responded only weakly” to this usurpation of language, and “that many workers, perhaps especially white males, perceive unions exactly as management would like them to: as overbearing bureaucracies in which the individual is easily lost or even crushed,” the writers suggest that “to bring a real labor movement back, we may need a more individualist, even libertarian approach, one that finally brings the “rights revolution to American workers, regardless of gender or race… unions need to engage the individual worker directly, and not only as an atom within a potential bargaining unit.”“At present the only way for most workers to join a union is to pass through a kind of trial by fire—an arduous, often risky, organizing drive that may last for months. No such ordeal is required of people who would like to join, say, the National Organization for Women or the NAACP, who can simply send in their dues. In many European countries, anyone can join a union individually… and labor can often bargain in workplaces that never voted in a union at all. (As a result, labor in Europe can more easily bargain for whole industries.) Still, the Europeans have a point. Why, they ask, do you keep all your ‘true believers’ out? The first step toward the revitalization of American unions should be to create a form of membership accessible to any worker.”The authors discuss what such access to membership might mean: “We’re not talking about an AARP-type membership, such as the AFL-CIO tried a few years ago. In that particular case, there was no union-type service that the individuals got. Nothing but VISA cards, hotel discounts, and the like. The idea died of its own silliness. To make individual memberships work, the member has to get a real union-type service, somehow connected to wages, hours, working conditions. It has to be limited: a fee for a specific service, to be rendered now or even later.”The writers wind up concluding that initially, for non-unionized workers willing to sign up, these services should come in the form of free legal services to help negotiate the myriad labor laws affecting them. They also advocate an array of membership rights where an ACLU-like group, functioning within the AFL-CIO, would stand up for workers on drug testing, surveillance, and other issues.But could Hollywood’s AFL-CIO workers—those in IATSE—agree with such a strategy? Hollywood’s guilds are supposed to offer an imprimatur of mastery, weather someone is wielding a hammer or a camera. Would those IATSE guilds be willing to reach out to non-unionized crew members in “right to work” states, to offer them the kind of initial “affiliation” mentioned in the article?Is there a role to be played for such services in states where lack of unionization—along with various tax incentives—is often touted as part of the “package” to lure films and TV shows? Would this drive more U.S. production overseas? Or, with the ever-weakening dollar bringing more production back, would such outreach mean that producers—and not just those negotiating DVD percentages with SAG this week—would have to deal with reinvigorated workers no matter where they went? Workers who want reasonable hours, safe sets, and good working conditions.Workers who may eventually stop being hostile, and actually be receptive—after seeing labor guild services in action—when someone finally gets around to organizing them for full union membership.Write Union Roundup: [email protected]

Written by Mark London Williams

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