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Union Roundup – October 2004

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We don’t just report news here—we also eat lunch and wear hats. Rather, we take lunches and sometimes don non-reporter garb and both phenomena converge in this column.
First, to the headwear metaphor: Besides serving as your humble Union Roundup columnist I also sling ink and pixels together in the archaic craft of “writing books.” What they are isn’t the point here, but with my book author’s hat on, I was invited to a gathering of scribes who labor in the same genre-themed vineyards. At that gathering I was—you can run, but you can’t hide—asked to be part of a panel on Hollywood; to talk with at least feigned authority about what the Entertainment God Mammon was up to, how to cope if you want to break into The Biz, etc.
So I chit and chatted and fielded questions for about an hour and explained what the term “below the line” really means, and then spent the rest of the time talking about above-the-line considerations: what movies are in the pipeline, how adaptations work or don’t, etc. The closest we came to tech/crew issues after that was when the conversation moved to what was new in cutting-edge special FX—which is more of a “post” consideration.
This all took place in Austin, a pretty sophisticated film town.
This gets me to the lunch. Back here in Pueblo de Los Angeles, Below The Line was invited to an info/fundraising luncheon held by FTAC—the Film and Television Action Committee which goes by its initials, much as other gadfly groups have done, such as ACT UP! or EF! And without being melodramatic about the issues involved, FTAC occupies a similar place in “movement ecology” that those groups did: ACT UP! taking to the streets during the Reagan administration’s neglect of AIDS and AIDS funding, Earth First! taking to the trees and the logging roads as more and more publicly-owned wildlands fell to help corporate bottom lines.
FTAC hasn’t really come close to going the civil disobedience route like those groups, of course, but like them, their existence allows more mainstream groups and guilds to look “reasonable” and “moderate” when negotiating with the powers that be. The existence of FTAC, in other words, allows the entire debate to be reframed, and allows middle-of-the-road positions to be seen for the compromises they are, rather than as starting points from which the powerful can start to whittle away at the demands of the less-powerful.
Currently, FTAC is trying to jujitsu the system, much as, say, EF! and other enviro groups did by challenging timber sales in court, when those sales violated stated laws. In this case, as previously reported, FTAC is undertaking a Commerce Department filing that would say that countries—Canada being the first named “perp”—who hurl tax breaks and subsidies at American production companies are engaged in unfair trade practices.
If it works, FTAC can probably expect the rules to be changed. Environmental groups often found that when they could win on points of law, then the law itself would be amended.
But, as Harriet Tubman and others have noted, the fight is its own existential reward, and once in awhile, the little guy wins. Thus FTAC gathered at the Hollywood Heritage Museum, with a group of DPs, editors, ADs, vendors and others, who listened to the speakers frame the job-flight-from-Hollywood debate in larger terms: “We’re part of outsourcing,” FTAC co-founder Brent Swift noted. Later, DGA member Don Newman added that “we don’t escape outsourcing when we retire,” a reference to higher PH & W deductibles for retirees, whose unions are often faced with fewer currently employed members paying in for higher health care costs.
The same refrain was heard again when one of the group’s executive directors, Tim McHugh, talked specifically of “film industry outsourcing,” and noted “the petition we’re filing is one routinely used by the MPAA,” to protect against piracy of its “product.” But again, none of those trade rules were really drafted with “the little guy” in mind.
So it will be interesting—and a bit of a 21st century civics lesson—to see how far FTAC gets. The other purpose behind the luncheon was to raise money to pay the lawyers who are doing the filing—democracy, after all, don’t come cheap.
But the “outsourcing” reference shows political instincts that will serve the anti-job flight movement well. And this gets us back to that roomful of film fans in Austin.
Besides being well read, this group of folks was pretty sharp politically. But they’re also fans of movies like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, X-Men, Spider-Man 2, and other big-screen fantasy and science-fiction fare.
And like millions of other American citizens, they find these CGI baubles hard to resist when they’re playing in their local cineplex. And like millions of other citizens, all struggling to pay bills, they don’t have vast reserves of empathy when they hear of “Hollywood folk” being out of work. Not as long as the movies are good.
Which means that if anybody ever harbored the idea of a consumer boycott of studio fare, as a possible back-pocket strategy, they should forget it right now. Shoot those movies in Bulgaria with 14 year-olds doing all the labor, and if it still looks cool, citizens will be lining up at the mall to buy tickets.
Groups like ACT UP! and EF! came to life in a context where there was broad moral outrage about their issues—ignoring the spread of an STD, cashing in on the ruination of the biosphere—regardless of how anyone viewed their tactics.
The unemployed in Hollywood will be denied such broad appeal and context for their own joblessness. Unless they keep talking about “outsourcing” as a larger, and non-Hollywood specific problem. And unless they pursue strategies and tactics other movements have used—like coalition-building to groups outside your single issue.
That way, even those film fans in Austin might start worrying about Hollywood job flight when they realize that the jobs they come for, they “outsource” next—“they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist, so I did not speak up,” as the poem goes—might be their own.
Meanwhile, the languors and idylls of summer are coming to an end here at UR, and we’ll be back in the thick of a hard, mean political season in future columns.
Email Union Roundup at: [email protected]

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