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Union Roundup

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By Mark London Williams“Winter” in Los Angeles, may not mean what it does in other parts of the country, but there’s still movement under the ice, and a host of interested parties wondering what it will all mean come spring. Especially when you think of the ice as Southern California—and Hollywood—labor politics, and how it all promises to change in the months ahead.For example, there’s a group calling itself the California Coalition for Fair Trade. They’re the local, Golden State members of a larger coalition calling itself the Citizens’ Trade Campaign, described as “a national coalition of environmental, labor, consumer, family farm, religious, and other civil society groups founded in 1992 during the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).”If the idea of a “coalition” sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because that’s what the right wing in America has successfully put together: a combination of the waiting-for-Armageddon crowd, chamber-of-commerce types, the generally fearful, corporate PACs, oil companies, NRA apologists, and the like, all coming together for an agenda willingly advanced by media titans like Rupert Murdoch.Clearly, the CTC, as it likes to call itself, has had a rough go of it since the early ’90s, as it watched pro-“free trade” Democrats cede office to voraciously “free trade” Republican administrations—and Congresses—where “labor” and “environmental” concerns are viewed with contempt, when they’re viewed at all.It would seem for a group like CTC to be effective, a certain change in tactics might be called for. And the hint of such change, not just for CTC but for Hollywood unions as well, came one evening at a studio commissary, during a cold evening’s gathering under the heat lamps.The CTC had one of its California reps at the meeting of FTAC, or the “gadfly gang,” or the Film and Television Action Committee, or “those goddamn people,” depending where you fall on the outsourcing issue, the question of union reform, etc. Said rep patiently waited his turn, then brought to the group’s attention a proposed action for spring—early in April, no less: a protest at the Century Plaza Hotel.Now, the Century Plaza has been getting its share of union flak lately for other reasons, about which more in a minute.No, in this case, the hotel is playing host to the “Gartner Outsourcing Summit 2005,” sponsored by the IT analysis company, with a conference manifesto that notes “outsourcing is firmly established as a mainstream business practice. One that’s delivering tangible business benefits to companies like yours. Cost savings. Flexibility. Scalability. Performance enhancement. Standardization.”So the CTC, in the guise of those Californians coalescing for fair trade, is looking to get a group—a coalition—of not only Hollywood guilds, but workers in “garment and other manufacturing, information technologies, business services and engineering.” Everyone affected by the race to the bottom in wages and benefits undertaken in the guise of “free” trade.So, while FTAC isn’t a union per se, all the union folk that make up their membership responded with gusto to the proposal to “walk the line” with workers from other industries, and one would be surprised if the Teamsters—who already shut down one “isn’t outsourcing great?” symposium in Century City over the mere threat of a demonstration—didn’t sign on as well.With Hollywood unions, then, beginning to feel the pain of workers in other industries—and not just their own when contracts expire—the labor landscape here south of Bakersfield could get lively.We don’t even have to wait for the spring thaw. Right now, two merged hotel workers unions, calling themselves UNITE HERE (the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees hooking up with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees) are boycotting key hotels across the country in order to win better contracts for employees. Among the boycotted: the Century Plaza, the selfsame hotel hosting not only the outsourcing conference but many guild/union Hollywood events as well.Do you think there might be a call for those guilds to take their business elsewhere, in order to show support for their working siblings in lodge labor? You bet. Requests have been made to the Directors Guild and the Writers Guild to take their year-end congratz fests elsewhere. As of this writing, neither had responded to the request. One guild has though: the Producers! They’ve moved their January 22 PGA awards from the Century Plaza to The Culver Studios.This is analogous to having middle management support a strike before the shop folk do (since the producers aren’t really the “factory owners”—that’d be the entertainment conglomerates themselves, and so far, we haven’t heard of the MPAA getting over-anxious to honor picket lines).Another group that, as of press time, hasn’t taken a position on moving its own annual chicken-and-cheers gathering is the ASC, that storied group of cinematographers that has been in existence for 85 years, and where you can find movies like East of Eden listed in the “members’ favorites” section on its webpage.One wonders if the calculus of some earlier John Steinbeck work, say In Dubious Battle or Grapes of Wrath, might come into play when deciding whether they should continue to give their dollars to a hotel on a boycott list.Indeed, if the recent elections—and the vote-counting “glitches” that subsequently emerged—taught activists anything, it’s that their “votes with the dollar” may be the last real votes left to them.How this will continue to reshape the strategies of Hollywood unions (and how it might force long-delayed dialogue between rank-and-file members and their national union leadership) and between the guilds themselves, both above and below the line, and in and out of the film biz, not only remain to be seen, but promise, perhaps, the liveliest “labor scene” in Hollywood since the period in which those Steinbeck works are set, the 1930s. Stay tuned. And happy new year.

Written by Mark London Williams

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