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Union Roundup – January 2004


“Right to work” states—many of them south of the Mason Dixon—are siphoning off jobs in pro-union places like California and New York, because workers are willing to work for less, and therefore everyone’s benefits suffer. Right? After all, isn’t that the common explanation for the interminable L.A. grocery store strike, wherein the cost-cutting ways of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart are said to be the impetus for the grocery corporations’ haste in cutting employee health benefits—in order to “compete”—and the workers’ rush to protect said benefits from spiraling down to the lowest common denominator?
But where do worker sympathies fall when unions are doing the competing?
That’s somewhat the case—somewhat—with news coming out of Tennessee that Democratic state lawmaker Mike Turner has introduced a bill there to lure film and TV production to the Jack Daniels state by eliminating all taxes on goods and services for a given production, if at least 51 percent of the skilled employees are native Tennesseans.
In a Darwinian twist, supporters of the bill don’t really reference Canada, or even California, as the main impetus for the bill, but rather, that dratted Louisiana, which is offering its own tax breaks for productions and forcing neighboring states to follow suit. “Production flight,” then—as with other labor issues—becomes a 50-state war of all against all.
But who wins?
The producers, certainly, and maybe some of the workers: Turner claims to have introduced the bill at the behest of IATSE Local 492—representing studio mechanics in Tennessee and northern Mississippi. Bekka Gregory, business manager for the local, stated in hometown papers that “We basically approached the state and sought out some legislators that might be interested in sponsoring the bill. We have said that we have to do something to compete with not only Vancouver, but Louisiana.”
Again, who wins?
The irony here is that we’re not talking about jobs flowing from a union workplace to a non-union one, but rather, from one local—or set of locals (in California)—to another, in the same union. If IATSE members are working in the South, does that mean their brothers and sisters have “subsidized” them by enduring a slow job market elsewhere?
And if the question isn’t one of giving up benefits —union employees will get them wherever they work—then how are Tennessee and Louisiana able to offer tax packages that California, say, does not? Perhaps, instead, there’s the “subsidy” of lifestyle and government services—tax rollbacks mean less money for state coffers, and fewer public sector programs.
So, in a sense, those non-unionized Wal-Mart workers, in Tennessee, Louisiana—and California —the very people who might be dependent on public health services, for example, because of their nonexistent job benefits are, in a sense, subsidizing production “job flight” from one state’s guilds to another. In this case tax incentives mean—initially, anyway—less money in the public till.
The idea, of course, is that productions arrive and line everyone’s pockets, after all, by spreading the wealth while the cameras roll. But again, if there’s scarcely any money going for taxes, that means the “wealth” stays in the hands of those working on the movie.
Everyone else in the state becomes, in a sense, an unwilling producer: They’ve “invested,” perhaps, the chance to get new textbooks at school—if the government can’t afford them—in order to bring the production to town. Who, among workers—and their families—wins?
Or is the very fluidity of “job flight” another reason that all unions—including Hollywood’s—should support the struggle of employees everywhere to make the marketplace god yield up benefits and protections that governments are willing to slash, in order to prop up a shaky job market in whatever way they can?
–– By Mark London Williams

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