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HomeColumnsUnion RoundupUnion Roundup – December 2008

Union Roundup – December 2008


It’s a lively time to be a labor columnist—even a Hollywood labor columnist, a sentence whose very construct might garner laughs in auto plants and machine shops anyplace east of Barstow.

The reason things are so lively is that suddenly “labor”— as a construct, as a concept, as a prism for viewing the last 30 years of pillage and rapine visited upon the American economy—is back in the news in a way it hasn’t been since either the ’30s (during the previous depression) or the ’60s (during the last meaningful Democratic administration); take your pick.

Not that there haven’t been bits of labor news in meantime— yet Reagan smashing the air controllers union, for example, wasn’t an occasion for much broad-based outrage, but a kind of footnote to what was viewed as a “popular” presidency by cowed Democrats, or a march to sainthood, if you were in the GOP.

Now the union smashing is going full bore—not only by the slow, steady thrum of outsourcing and “free” trade, but in an in-your-face manner right in Washington D.C., unfolding as I write these words.

I’m referring to the Republican senate minority— set to become even more of a minority in January—which successfully killed off a short-term bailout of the American auto industry.

Now, this wasn’t because the Senators were alarmed that this industry has spent decades lying about global warming, or keeping us economically enslaved to the Saudi royal family, or because a handful of principled Solons thought that Detroit’s Big Three should be retooled to make rail cars for mass transit.

No, this was because the GOP saw this as a chance to destroy unions. Particularly the UAW, which—like the SEIU, Major League Baseball Players Association, and unions like, well, SAG—is one of the few with any remaining clout, in the sense that its strikes can have immediate affect, and actually shut down a production process.

Or even simply because the union has managed to remain intact as a union. Even as cautious a paper as the Los Angeles Times blared the headline “Auto bailout’s death seen as a Republican blow at unions.”

The piece , b y Jim Puzzanghera, goes on to say that “in killing the stopgap rescue plan worked out by President Bush and congressional Democrats, conservative Republicans—many from right-to-work states across the South—struck at an old enemy: organized labor.”

The article notes that “antipathy to unions was an undercurrent through the weeks of negotiations leading up to Thursday’s Senate vote rejecting the plan.

“Handing a defeat to labor and its Democratic allies in Congress was also seen as a preemptive strike in what is expected to be a major battle for the new Congress in January: the unions’ bid for a so-called card check law that would make it easier for them to organize workers, potentially reversing decades of declining power. The measure is strongly opposed by business groups.

“This is the Democrats’ first opportunity to pay off organized labor after the election,” read an email circulated Wednesday among Senate Republicans. “This is a precursor to card check and other items. Republicans should stand firm and take their first shot against organized labor, instead of taking their first blow from it.”

So that’s why the funds for keeping the car companies afloat until January were yanked: It’s solely a way to screw over labor.

Interestingly, more and more Americans are getting on to the fact that they, too, are “labor” and not—to their surprise— part of the elite ruling class. Generally, losing your home and your job will inform you of this.

Hence, an MSNBC article for consumers/viewers/civilians on “The ABCs of a SAG Strike,” bylined by Kay McFadden, gives a pretty good, if simplified, overview of the issues at stake. Posing—then answering—questions like “What is SAG” and “Who’s on the other side?” After the preliminaries, and a rundown of the streaming/digital revenue at stake, the article asks “Who do I root for?”

McFadden answers thusly: “If your goal is to see seasons of 24 more often than 18 months apart, maybe you should send flowers to Kiefer Sutherland beseeching him not to honor his SAG membership,” and then continues, “others may feel differently. While actors aren’t exactly auto workers or bank tellers, you still may feel there’s no reason for a union to make any concessions after years of management enriching itself.”

Now, think about that. Those words—“no reason for a union to make any concessions after years of management enriching itself”—are appearing on a website co-owned by Microsoft and General Electric.

It’s hard to imagine an analysis of a Hollywood strike asserting any difference in the economic trajectories of workers and management, even a year or so ago. In America’s self-mythologizing, we are all “management,” and anyone who isn’t either glamorous, or self-sufficient enough, to worry about.

Of course, the article concludes there’s a “third approach: The world is full of amusements. You two sides work it out and focus on me, the viewer, or I’ll go find something else to do.”

And therein lies the rub for Hollywood. During the last depression, there were only movies and radio (and the occasional wax recording) in terms of electronic “entertainment.” There’s a lot more to choose from now, and a lot less capital to spread around getting “projects” “greenlight,” or whatever else fuels the local economic engines of lunches at the Ivy, and quick jaunts to Aspen or Maui during hiatus.

The question for actors, in terms of at-large support for a second successive Hollywood strike, might be whether they’re perceived as additional victims of a right wing endgame, seeking to break the vestigal remains of organized labor, and haul what little remaining wealth is left in America’s actual—not theoretical—economy.

If so, actors may find themselves as part of a larger historical moment. Then again, once you have common cause with a single mother losing her home in Gary, Indiana, or a father whose family is out on the streets in East Lansing—or anywhere else—what does that do to your own sense of yourself? As an American worker— even if a cultural one?

More on the subject coming up. But the times, they are a-changin’. As a Woody Guthrie-inspired folk singer wrote, some four or so decades ago.

Write: [email protected]

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