Happy 2022! Well, we can dream, can’t we?
At a minimum, we hope your holidays and calendar changes remained relatively Omicron-free, and that the year ahead will have fewer sudden twists and turns than the one behind us. Although revered as plotting techniques, when used relentlessly in real life, those sudden twists can be exhaustive.
Yet, this would also seem to be a good time to remain alert.
As to what to remain alert for, well, allow us to lapse into the January tradition of a first column doing some prognosticating for the year ahead. Or at least to doff the cap to some of the prognostications around us.
Labor Notes has a good roundup on Who Might Strike? in 2022. Mentioning the rather high-profile strikes and “contract battles” of 2021 (Hollywood falling, of course, into the latter camp, rather than the former — for better or worse, depending who you ask), the article wonders aloud where similar showdowns might fall in the months ahead.
These run the gamut from Food and Commercial Worker contracts (including here in California), Longshore contracts along the West Coast, teachers’ locals in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Oakland, along with “first contracts” in fields like journalism (wait… what!?).
And while two of the biggest showbiz contracts — SAG and DGA — won’t be up until 2023, there will be lots of jockeying, feints, and parries in the run-up, on both counts. (There may even be some merriment on the WGA side, due to similar contract expirations, but let’s take it one bit at a time.)
A recent Deadline article delved into the tough stances SAG is already publicly taking (or rather, trying out as trial balloons in the press), quoting SAG President Fran Drescher, who addressed membership in the union’s magazine, as saying “only if we take a stand and commit to the things that matter, do we have influence both in D.C. and at the negotiating table.”
Those stances include fairly critical things like keeping healthcare benefits funded (and as broadly available to members as possible) along with even broader goals like the formation of a Green Council, and a “PSA Pandemic Exit Strategy education program,” in conjunction with the recently visited Executive Branch.
The latter two won’t really be the province of negotiations with “producers” (or rather, with Disney, Warner, and the streaming giants), but they do point to what may be some interesting contradictions for Hollywood unions in the future. Perhaps for other unions too, but as Drescher also wrote, “we are relevant. We are stars. And we mean business!”
So then, perhaps one difference between what is merely performative, versus what is actually followed through on, is whether your bully pulpit (or at least your “Q Rating”) is higher to begin with. Or the degree to which a cessation of labor can quickly gain wider notice.
Going back to teachers, imagine if they all walked out across the country in significant numbers, all at once, both to protest being kept in jeopardy during recurrent COVID waves (with no current exit strategy), or the increased meddling in their classrooms from far-right ideologues? Would parents suddenly stop and really listen? Or would they need them to get “back to work” as soon as possible (perhaps including those parents working crew jobs, with still not enough turnaround time), no matter what, any sense of “union” or “worker” solidarity notwithstanding?
Those same notions cropped up when IATSE sent its first weekly newsletter of the year, looking back over the union’s 2021 highlights, chief among them, of course, the successful resolution to contract talks this past fall.
Another interesting highlight, though, was mention of their quadrennial convention, this time held virtually, which adopted, according to their own reportage, the “most progressive agenda in the Union’s history.”
This also includes “winning better healthcare,” like their thespian colleagues, “achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion, (and) advocating for pro-worker and family-friendly policy.” All well and good. Then you get down to some additional, more specific details, such as:
“Support elected officials who seek to ensure access to voting and fair elections in the US, while also working with organizations that help folks navigate the voting process and overcome voter suppression schemes.”
Also good. But how? One notices that after a lot of corporate bluster and umbrage when Georgia passed its voter suppression laws, business is going on pretty much as usual there. Any slowdowns — including, for our purposes, the robust film and TV production which the Peach State continues to enjoy as a revenue stream — are the result of Covid protocols and an Omicron surge, rather than a withdrawal of labor in an effort to force awareness about the last vestiges of a once-semi-functioning democracy.
And yet here we are, approaching an election only slightly less critical than either 2016’s, or 2024’s. Or perhaps just as critical, in terms of assuring there’ll be anything like an “election,” as commonly defined, in 2024.
Will IATSE advise its members to stop working on Atlanta sound stages and backlots until voting rights are restored? Will SAG instruct its actors, or the DGA its ADs and UPMs, to do likewise?
One suspects not.
Will there be specific union-wide boycotts of products from corporations who continue to funnel money into the campaigns and PACs of insurrectionists, and others actively seeking to end “fair elections” in the USA? Well, stay tuned.
Similarly, when thinking of Green Councils, will there be any advisories to stop flying jets to distant locations (perhaps taking trains instead, or simply rearranging production so that travel is minimized), or – as with voting rights – union and guild organized boycotts of products whose companies continue to use the entire biosphere as a dumping ground?
None of these out-loud queries are meant to make the perfect the enemy of the good, or to single out entertainment workers from any others, all struggling to keep home and hearth together in an increasingly out-of-balance system.
But with all the talk about a newly-emboldened labor movement, it will be interesting to see, in this brave new year, where push finally comes to shove, especially on the broader issues immediately beyond paychecks and benefits.
Since, after all, even paychecks are finally affected once a society unravels too much.
After all, the rhetoric is already there, everything but the specifics of “an injury to one is an injury to all,” as per the old Wobblies. But the follow-up may determine whether this is simply an anomalous stretch of labor activity that eventually recedes, or whether it’s the start of unexpected coalition building, and previously unused leveraging, that might make this year truly “new” in an even more profound sense.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”