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HomeColumnsUnion RoundupUnion Roundup – November 2008

Union Roundup – November 2008

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Venerable—and it’s amazing to think of film critics who work for “alternative” papers as venerable—film writer Andy Klein had an interesting essay in the Thanksgiving week issue of L.A. City Beat that asks “Is Hollywood Recession-Proof?”

It’s a good piece, and worth reading, that makes some salient points including an observation that, despite declining box office during the previous depression, everyone flocked to the movies because, he writes, “the only mass media alternatives for narrative entertainment were radio and reading, both wonderful but not a replacement for the big-screen experience. Radio was ‘free’—unless you count tolerating commercials as a cost—and certainly benefited from movie defections.”

“Now, of course, the panoply of available entertainment sources is almost beyond comprehension, including a lot that are ‘free’.” Klein then cites the usual sources everyone is fighting over right now, particularly internet “broadcasts.” And yet, he concludes optimistically, Hollywood is still relatively recession/depression- proof—compared, say, to a town like Detroit right now—because “another big difference from the ’30s is that the studios not only own a piece of the action from the multiple secondary markets (TV, cable, video rental, video sales, pay-perview, video-on-demand, and the upcoming direct downloading through the internet), they are also units within vastly diversified corporations. Unless the total cost of a night out at the movies goes down, theatrical distribution may suffer badly, which would be an aesthetic tragedy. But shed no tears for Disney, Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony, or Universal: They’ve got their asses covered eight ways from Tuesday.”

Well, yes and no. My colleague declares that because they are “units within vastly diversified corporations,” they have more fiscal protection, in theory, than studios in the last depression did. Except that last time out, studios only had to be concerned with who was—or wasn’t—going to the movies.

Now, for example, if GE’s fortunes plunge because no one is buying as many new kitchen appliances—or nuclear reactors—then when “all divisions” need to tighten their belts, well, two of those divisions happen to be NBC and Universal.

And if those aforementioned Detroit-based industries go under—impending Congressional bailouts notwithstanding— there goes another huge chunk of TV advertising revenue, affecting ABC, for example, and therefore Disney.

As we are learning—and as our President-elect has said, in so many words, on numerous occasions—everyone else’s jeopardy is, eventually, our own.

On which note, by way of necessary aside: This is our first issue since the momentous election of ’08, and thus, the first UR column written, during Below the Line’s half-dozen years in existence, where it’s possible to contemplate an Oval Office occupant—and an administration— not on the verge of absolute, stark derangement.

In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll be looking at the new President’s cabinet picks, as will the rest of America’s workforce—or is “work” in quotes, when there isn’t any?—both in and out of unions.

As we send this paper to press, Michael Kranish writes a perceptive article in The Boston Globe with the worrying headline “Unions’ Euphoria Gives Way to Worry.”

Writing about how the current economic collapse has weakened union positions even before Obama gets in, he says that “instead of being able to call in their chits for having helped elect Obama, union leaders are facing an array of crises, including layoffs, bankruptcies, contract concessions, and rising costs for healthcare and other services. But if Obama had lost, AFL-CIO policy director Thea Lee said, ‘it would be much more terrifying.’”

Well, yes, but it’s already plenty terrifying enough.

He also notes that “these anxious times for unions are happening while they are awaiting word of Obama’s pick for secretary of the Department of Labor. Obama, who did not include a labor secretary when he introduced his economic team last week, has named to top economic posts a number of Clinton-era officials who are considered moderates. As a result, organized labor is pushing hard for a more liberal counterweight as labor secretary.”

Since that pick will be made long in advance of our next column—indeed, probably by the time you read this—we’ll have an even sharper focus on how our new President plans to proceed with organized labor.

Which brings us to Hollywood’s own unions. Particularly, of course, SAG, which as you already know, is pushing for a strike authorization vote.

This comes as the Writers Guild of America is rumbling about their presumably paltry internet/streaming revenues not being paid at all, subsequent to their allegedly settled strike, providing a perhaps not entirely unjustified “see? We told you!” attitude among SAG’s pro-strike faction, “helmed,” as it were, by current guild president Alan Rosenberg.

And yet even notable standup- to-the-man types like Mike Ferrell have publicly declared they will not be voting to authorize such a walkout. As per Ferrell’s emailed statement, which made the internet— again, in the hours leading up to our own press deadline—he declared “I’m sure there will be the admonition that ‘you’re either with us or with the terrorist AMPTP.’ Well I, for one, am not anti-union. God knows, as a member for over 40 years, I’m not anti-SAG. But I am anti-idiocy. I’m voting ‘no’.”

And what constitutes “idiocy” during a house fire—if we may use that metaphor for our current “economy”—is a good question. The corporations, certainly, helped bring us here, through a combination of job exportation, Wall Street shenanigans, disproportionate pay, supporting politicians who ransacked the social safety net, etc. That’s our burning house.

But you can’t argue about who dropped the matches when the polyester shirt on your skin is starting to melt. So we all have to get out of this together.

On which note, even the UAW—something of a “gold standard” among American unions, once upon a time, in terms of clout and benefits for members—is making concessions in order to see its very industry saved, via government bailout (just don’t call such a handout, er, socialism, because, you know, it’s a “free market” that can totally take care of itself!). Among the concessions: Delayed contributions to medical funds, and suspension of a program that paid laid-off workers. Ceasing their own unemployment benefits, in other words.

In a Bloomberg article about the union givebacks, UC Berkeley labor prof. Harley Shaiken was quoted as saying “This should be interpreted as a meaningful and a painful sacrifice.”

Yes. Both sides will need to find a new way of doing business like each other. It won’t be like the last depression— for either auto workers, or “movie people.”

Write: [email protected]

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