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Union Roundup – October 2008


“Going badly,” might describe more than a few things in the world right now: U. S . foreign policy, or more pertinently, the state of the world economy. Or the attempts to curb climate change.

Specifically, though, when those words were uttered by 20th Century Fox COO Peter Chernin, he was describing the state of negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild.

In a story that Reuters carried over “the wires,” as they used to be quaintly called in that era before anyone knew what “digital rights” (or ancillaries or royalties) were or might be, Chernin added that “the studios,” as his side of the tinsel- strewn boulevard is called, “had no plans to return to the bargaining table.”

“We have now made successful deals with virtually the entire Hollywood creative community,” he continued in the story, reporting comments made at the TVWeek Innovation 360 media conference in New York. “SAG has come in and basically said: ‘The deal you made with everyone else is not good enough for us.’”

That would, of course, be the deal made with directors and writers, those writers being in an allied guild that once upon a time thought that it would time its putative strike to coincide with a SAG walk-out.

But SAG is now, of course, all by its lonesome, for better or worse. The writers have settled, and even AFTRA—the other actors union—has struck a deal with “the studios.” And SAG itself is riven by its own internal split, as you, dear reader, know from the guild’s recent election, where the “Unite for Strength” faction—promoting a merger with AFTRA—won a bare majority of seats in a recent election for open board slots.

Writer David Macaray has a very astute piece about these very SAG lonesome woes, over at the Counterpunch website. In “A Tale of Two Unions,” he opens by asking the reader not to “treat as ‘criticism’ what we’re about to say about SAG’s (Screen Actors Guild) on-going attempt at settling its contract with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), particularly as it compares with similar efforts by the IAM (International Association of Machinists) to reach a deal with Boeing. Let’s call what follows an ‘observation.’”

And among his many acute observations, taking in, among other things, the heyday of the United Auto Workers, back when people could afford to buy cars, Detroit had little competition in America, and corporations were more or less forced to settle with workers, he gets to this:

“Which brings us to SAG and the IAM, two unions that are currently facing similar challenges, but approaching them from vastly different perspectives. And even though it’s the IAM that has 27,000 of its members on the bricks, carrying picket signs—and SAG is still working under a contract—it’s SAG that seems to be in the bigger jam.

“The machinists,” he allows, may not “get everything they want, because that never happens. The outsourcing of jobs and the assault on union health insurance will still be huge obstacles. But it does mean that these striking workers are in the best possible bargaining position they could find themselves; they’re facing a profitable, healthy company, they are recognized as competent, professional workers, and they and have a well-developed sense of union solidarity. It’s an impressive trifecta.

“For SAG members the outlook isn’t quite as positive… even with no one on strike and everybody still (in principle) working. We say ‘in principle’ because even though SAG represents 120,000 TV and movie actors, upwards of 80% of them are regularly unemployed. Moreover, approximately 75% of SAG members earn less than $5,000 a year.

“When you compare those figures with the exorbitant deals big-name movie stars regularly get, it’s not hard to see part of the problem SAG faces. It’s close to impossible to maintain a powerful sense of union solidarity when there’s such a huge disparity between the haves and have-nots.”

And of course, that disparity is generally topic A in most discussions about “the state of things” in America, whether one lives anywhere near Los Angeles, or has ever dabbled with being a “thesp.”

Can you “afford” to strike when you’re a have-not? Or do you have no choice? Except that the have-not actors, unlike have-not miners, machinists, or auto workers, have already had to figure out other ways to make a living. It’s the haves who want to settle quickly with producers. Their money actually comes from acting.

It’s a contradiction other professions don’t really face—if you had to bus tables or work as a substitute teacher while holding a UAW card, and could only “occasionally” solder a car together, when you were “lucky,” how much stake would you have in what “your” union did?

Of course, if there was another auto workers union willing to strike a deal with Ford, it might not matter as much whether you were allowed to work a day or two a year on the assembly line or not: You might be too busy making a living, or trying to, some other way.

We should see soon how it shakes out for SAG, or whether, really, there will still be a SAG, as we have known it, by year’s end.

And while writers like Macarary get online to offer their insights about Hollywood labor imbroglios, those actual working actors are writing op-ed pieces about larger issues, like Alan Cumming’s recent piece about the election at Huffington Post. Called “Why is America Content with Mediocrity?,” the almost minted U.S. citizen (he’s going to just miss being eligible to vote in the election) and former “Emcee” in Sam Mendes’ epochal restaging of Cabaret—a musical about a different type of reaction to economic hard times—notes that he’s been observing both John McCain and Sarah Palin constantly referring “to the American work force as the best in the world, how America is a force for good in the world, how America is the best at (fill in the blank here depending on who you’re talkin’ to, wait for applause, wink, smile, and on).

“You know what? I’m sorry to be blunt, and I wish it were not true, but America isn’t any of the above. Its poor, downtrodden, unhealthy, under-educated and depressed workforce cannot surely believe it towers above all others in some sort of World Worker Idol type way? If so, why are its bosses firing so many of them and giving the jobs to people in other countries?”

And a medium-sized paragraph later, further observes, “This country is a mess. It is entering a depression. It is waging two wars. It has an administration so blatantly corrupt that the world is baulking at its arrogance. It lets its poor die.”

He writes of wanting to be proud of America again, the country in which he’s gaining citizenship, and then, after recounting a run-in with a Republican TV pundit at a party, says “that when it comes down to it, American politics is split into people who think it’s their duty to care about other people, and those who think it’s every man for themselves. That’s it. That’s why I think the system is systematically flawed and is in dire need of a third party to shake things up a little.”

He’s not exactly clear on how caring for others is a fundamental flaw, but Cumming is right about the split. It’s sort of a have/have-not thing again.

Whether unions will become stronger during this brave new Depression—even Hollywood ones—or whether they’ll be starting again from scratch, essentially, in negotiating with corporations like, well, Peter Chernin’s, remains to be seen.

In any case, it’s not going to be a time for sitting on the sidelines, wherever you and whatever you do. In that regard, Hollywood will be very much like the rest of America, in spite of what the country’s currently raging culture warriors might have you believe.

Happy autumning. Write Union Roundup: mark.williams@

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