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Union Roundup – February 2005


So, dear reader, there is much to talk about. Perhaps we’ll take a little extra word count and go into Golden Time.
First, there’s the matter of the promised sequel from last time, our discussion of the mighty dollar’s slipping mightiness: We reported on China’s announcement at the Davos Conference that it was looking for a mix of currencies to peg its currency to, rather than staying monogamous, if you will, with just the American buck.
And since then, we have South Korea, which holds about four percent of the foreign holdings in U.S. Treasury securities—the money borrowed to finance the growing U.S. deficit. Korea announced that it, too, might want to “diversify,” as the dollar kept weakening, sending the markets scrambling in late February to prop up that very dollar before our real debt financers—China and Japan—jumped ship entirely. Australian treasury secretary Ken Henry took to the microphone on the last Friday of the month to warn of a “global tsunami” if the dollar were to collapse, which would, of course, adversely affect Australia (and everyone else) as well.
The dollar was still viable as Below the Line went to press, but for how much longer? We discuss these things here in UR because much of the discussion on outsourcing and job flight operates on a set of assumptions shared by both the “owners” and the “workers” in these situations.
The conglomerates that own the studios and networks, and finance the shows, are looking to “stretch” their dollar because most of the currencies where filming is outsourced are worth “less” than our own bucks. Mix that in with subsidies, and producing in lands with used-to-be-weaker-than-ours currency becomes nearly irresistable to producers.
The American workers fighting outsourcing also assume that the dollar will remain strong versus these other currencies; they want the dollars to remain here, though.
What happens if the last few years of trade and domestic deficits, along with a weakening buck and general rancor towards the current U.S. administration, all conspire to send America’s currency into precipitous decline? Given all the strategies film workers are using to fight outsourcing, this is a little like tipping over the game board and sending all the pieces flying. It will change the calculus for everybody if the Euro, for example, suddenly becomes the world’s default currency.
Doughty FTAC, for example—those grassroots folks at the Film and Television Action Committee—won an initial, local victory in getting the Burbank City Council to consider throwing its municipal support behind FTAC’s petition to the Fair Trade Commission on whether Canada’s subsidies represent a violation of FTC rules. Burbank, too, has an interest in keeping jobs in Burbank. How the council finally votes on the issue will be known in mid-March.
But what use FTC petitions in a derailed economy? Or rather, what strategies should labor adopt—or be considering—if the problem becomes not just the ownership class looking for the cheapest possible wages wherever they can, but the infrastructure of the economy itself becoming dangerously unstable?
Sometimes, all you can do is put out the fires immediately in front of you. That’s why IATSE Local 169—for projectionists—in the Bay Area formed a picket line in front of Berkeley’s venerable Oaks Theater. The projectionist there, who was nearing retirement, had been “offered” the chance to keep working until that retirement came, only with a 25-percent cut in wages, and a 33-percent cut in working hours. This was the “deal” offered to him by the Oaks’ new owner, the Southern California-based Metropolitan theater chain.
As of press time, some patrons were staying away, and Metropolitan had come up with what it hoped was a “better” offer, which Local 169 was looking to ratify.
Picket lines, or the right to staff them, were also on the mind of Hollywood’s IATSE members.
You will recall the recent contretemps with the casting directors, who sought to unionize under the auspices of the Teamsters local 399. Suddenly, ads appeared in the trades—right, those other trades—billed as “An Open Letter to Our Drivers and Location Managers.”
The ad went on to admonish workers that “you may have heard or been told that you should not report to work in the event that the Teamsters sanction a picket line on behalf of casting directors.” The ad tried to assure readers, in somewhat passive/aggressive language, that not only do “you have a right to report to work,” but “The Union cannot fine or discipline you,” and further, “We expect our Drivers and Location Managers to report to work even if the casting directors choose to picket our facilities.”
At the bottom of the ad, ran the names of all the studios and most major TV production companies. Were they the “we” behind the ad, talking to “our” workers? It certainly wasn’t the Teamsters. Following the money, sources tell us that the AMPTP was the key “sponsor” of the page. “Our” workers, indeed.
In the end, the casting directors decided not to strike—sources tell Below the Line that conversations are quietly continuing behind the scenes that would allow said casting mavens to affiliate with the Teamsters after all—not so much because they want higher wages, but because they want those all-important health and pension benefits.
However, it seemed that in the run-up to that decision there was fear that the casting folk could’ve triggered a shutdown of production had the Teamsters gone out to support them. Reports come to this column about mixed feelings on that possibility—one IA rank-and-filer wondering aloud why he was told to honor picket lines when supermarket workers went on strike, but was being advised—not only in print, but by the IA itself—that he should not do so, for his own industry, if the Teamsters went out.
Of course, choosing to shop at a different market didn’t affect the contracts signed by IA workers, and there were fears that any refusal to show up for work on a lot could be termed “a secondary strike.”
And nobody, it seemed, was really ready for the cascading effects of a general walkout. The IA, in general, may be feeling the heat since the Teamsters these days generally get to negotiate contracts ahead of IA expirations, and thus can strike tougher deals, which the IA—with pressure from its own membership—is forced to follow.
This restricts the IA’s ability to make more “studio friendly” deals for its workers.
But of course, the above-the-line guilds, in fights over DVD residuals, for example, have also stepped back from what they perceived as the abyss. And since the abyss is where this column began, let’s end there. At a time when everyone feels that everything is falling apart—all at once—is labor better off pushing its issues, protecting its workers, to whatever degree it can, like plucky Local 169, picketing over the retirement benefits of one man?
Or is this the time to try and play it “safe” and weather the coming storms?
On a similar note, some words from the late Hunter S. Thompson (who inspired many of us laboring in journalism’s vineyard), who spent too much time staring into an abyss of his own, lately:
“We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear—fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer… ”
Labor, and its representatives, will have to decide if the “safe” deal is always the best. Here’s hoping the casting directors get their health benefits, and as these questions continue to play themselves out, we can safely say “to be continued” once again.
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