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Union Roundup – Half-lives

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Last time out, we wrote of newly-installed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s impending budget hatchet for that state’s renowned film production subsidies – they were the most generous in the country, often coming in at 40%-plus tax credit rebate for filming in the Wolverine state. Snyder wants to cut that to a total fund of just $25 million a year, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

The claim is that the state – in the view of Snyder and his supporters – has no real business supporting businesses that can’t “make it on their own,” but this would be the same governor that – as this column is being written – announced a specific “tax abatement” for Michigan’s own Shoreline Fruit Company, in the north end of the state. That’s so they can build a new fruit-drying plant, and hire more people to work in it.

Wait – so government support, in terms of tax incentives and support can help create… jobs?

What it really boils down to, as noted last time, is not the idea of governments bailing out whole industries, (the arms industry only exists, for example, because of government support, and policy designed to keep it afloat), or providing seed money, market incentives or R&D (this Internet thing you’re reading on began life as a DARPA project, after all) – it simply boils down to ideology.

Rightwingers don’t like Hollywood, mostly for ideological reasons. Sure, there might be a lot of self-absorbed rich people there, but they’re not our kind of self-absorbed rich people! They pay lip service to that whole “environment” thing and all that kooky scientific evidence!

But there are actual economic sides to the issue, and maybe some of those are in confounding shades-of-grey. It even brought in some mail on the question. One of the more interesting correspondents was an IA member, based here in L.A., who wrote originally that he wasn’t “surprised the producers and in-state residents love the incentives. But I thought those incentives were sold as economically beneficial to the states that had them. Apparently they are not a money generating program above the cost of the program. And they are patently unfair. How am I, as a United States resident who does not live in Michigan supposed to compete with the huge amount of incentive money a state has to offer? Let’s,” he concluded, “compete on an even playing field.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder plans to slash the state’s film production tax incentives.
I wrote back that “I don’t know if we want workers in each state turned against each other – we just want to put people back to work. Should there be no incentives for any industry? Should only certain geographies have certain incentives? (We’ll keep union auto manufacturing jobs in Michigan and Indiana, but not California or Ohio!?) There might be some question about incentives for work that drive down overall wages – but what if the workers in Michigan were en route to becoming unionized film workers?”

I then detoured into a brief digression – familiar, doubtless to long-term readers of this column (or even those reading a few paragraphs back) – about the industries our government subsidizes all the time, and wasn’t it just a matter of what was important to a culture?

The thoughtful reply from our IA member came back that “the incentives in place have already pitted workers from other states against each other. I am reacting to that fight against me, not starting the fight.

“Michigan is broke. The incentives are a political tool for politicians to create jobs for their state citizens. They do create jobs, but don’t add revenue that compensates for the incentive expense. The incentives draw the line between the states, the effect being every man for himself, or die.

“The film industry needs to be organized on a national basis. Instead the incentives divide the labor force against itself, thus weakening its position.”

That end note – and I still owe my correspondent a reply – was the most fascinating, and I imagine the most frightening to Governor Snyder and his ilk. “Every man for himself, or die,” benefits those who already own whatever scraps we are fighting over. Like the joke about the Teabagger, the CEO, and the union member: There are 12 slices of pie. The CEO takes 11 of them, then tells the Teabagger, “Look out! That union member wants to take your pie!”

It doesn’t mean unions are perfect, nor even that everyone, in every situation, needs to be in one. But it’s that “organized on a national basis” that would be the great fear of those who own on a national basis.

But even unions aren’t set up this way – hence “locals.” But can “locals” respond effectively to national, anti-labor movements bankrolled by those like billionaire oil brothers, who are funding campaigns like those of Snyder’s brother-in-arms Scott Walker, the newly-elected Wisconsin governor whose second order of business, after a new raft of corporate tax breaks (wait – tax breaks again!?) was, of course, to smash apart that state’s public sector unions.

Once you get people used to the idea they can’t ask for much, they won’t, the theory goes, which works for awhile – until your society explodes.

But things are quiet – relatively – for now, with some changes happening as stealthily as those radioactive isotopes from Japan alighting on your milk, leafy greens and drinking water. For example, did you know, some mere three years or so after Hollywood’s last great strike, that the WGA has gone and forged a new contract with producers and studios?

Ballots are coming in over the same Easter/end-of-Passover weekend this is being written, and the WGA’s board is telling rank-and-file members to approve the current deal, which, alas, rolls back first-class travel perks, throws a little more into pensions, freezes network residuals, but ups the residual ante on “pay TV.”

It will be the definition of “pay TV,” that will of course continue to change things for some time. Does that mean Hulu’s online Premium service? If not, why not?

And on the feature side, what about Video on Demand, the recent studio push to close the window between theatrical release, and VOD availability?

Portland’s alternative paper, The Mercury, recently had a good blog post reacting to an open letter signed by many A-list directors, decrying the move, saying it would “undermine the current — and successful — system of releasing films in a sequential distribution window that encourages movie lovers to see films in the optimum, and most profitable, exhibition arena: the movie theaters of America.”

But The Mercury’s Erik Henriksen wrote that the studios themselves weren’t too worried about actual theaters going under, and further, “a generation ago, going to the movies might’ve been a fancy, special event — and if you live in a place like Portland, and you care to put in some work, you can still find places where going to the movies resembles that — but for the general moviegoer, stuck with generic chain theaters? Especially if they’re my age or younger, and were raised with movies on VHS, and who use their computers more than their TVs? Why wouldn’t they want to watch something at home rather than dealing with all that bullshit?”

In other words, it’s all becoming “Pay TV,” of one sort of another. Does such an eventually decentralized way of distributing and accessing content mean that, by definition, the labor to make such content is equally decentralized?

Or, like our IA member wrote, is there some basis to believe that organizing on a national basis – not just for above-the-liners, who (like striking athletes in sports), can actually bring the business, our business, to a standstill – could still work?

As with the metldown in Fukishima, things are still playing out. And we haven’t even reached the half-life yet.

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