Suddenly, union elections are all over the news. Mostly, these news stories center around the question of whether to organize a workplace to begin with, and they’re currently popping up everywhere, particularly if your corporate name is “Starbucks” or “Amazon.”
The ownership of said companies, in time-honored fashion, is not pleased.
Sometimes, though, these elections regard the leadership of existing unions, whose mere existence has long since stopped being challenged by ownership (well, except perhaps at contract time).
Such was the case with our friends over at IA Local 706, the Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild, who elected Emmy winner Karen Westerfield, who becomes both the first woman and first Asian-American to serve in the top post of business rep.
She beat out incumbent Randy Sayer by about 75 votes (out of the 800 or so cast), but the twist, as noted in Deadline’s coverage of the recent vote, is that it was a re-do of an earlier election where Sayer had squeaked out a win by a mere 18 votes.
The election — along with those for all the other guild officers — was held again because of ballots that had previously been unsecured before counting, as in actually unsecured, not just imagined to be, in case you think this was another “stolen” election.
In any case, queries to the local from BTL — both from editorial, and the sprawling complex of Union Roundup offices — went unanswered, so there’s been no official union comment on the voting imbroglio.
This also leaves unanswered the interesting parallel between Local 706’s electoral redux, and growing union activity, which has only increased since their first election was run in January. You may recall that 706 was one of the IA locals — along with 44 and some others — that was pro-ratification for the general IATSE contract negotiated with studios.
Other guilds, such as 600, voted against the proposal, but as we all know, it passed by a narrow margin. However, that narrow margin has already led to leadership fallout, with Crystal Hopkins, the President for Local 871 (representing script supervisors, art department coordinators, and others), resigning her position last fall.
At the time, she said she “could not in good conscience” guide members through a ratification vote, and that she herself was attempting to stay “neutral.”
Whether an ongoing, heightened sense of activism led to the switch at the top for 706 remains to be seen (especially in the absence of comment), but it’s a sign that all may not be nearly as “settled” as it once appeared on the surface, even in the wake of a recent three-year contract agreement.
In a recent Guardian article on the sudden serial failures of the formerly highly-regarded and always overpaid “union-busting” consultants used by large corporations, the observation was that traditional anti-labor strategies were “no longer as effective because workers and their attitudes have changed: workers, especially younger workers, are braver about speaking out, they’re using social media to outmaneuver the consultants, and they’re embracing highly effective strategies, like worker-to-worker organizing and interrupting so-called captive audience meetings, where consultants discuss the supposed evils of unions.”
And further, according to SF State Prof. John Logan, who specializes in the study of such workplace dynamics, this new group of workers “survived the pandemic, and they’re no longer so fearful. The pandemic was such a frightening experience that workers have recalibrated their sense of risk about what they’re prepared to do in their lives. They’re more prepared to join a union campaign. They feel they’ve repeatedly been disrespected while their employers were making billions of dollars.”
Granted, this doesn’t mean the changes at 706 were part of this particular ferment — elections in locals can often hinge on in-house personalities, use of membership funds, etc. — but it certainly comes at a time when that ferment is brewing.
And the changes that brew will bring remain unpredictable, both for Hollywood and beyond. As the LA Business Journal reports, unionization is even cropping up in the video game biz (gosh, does this mean that VFX workers, finally, are not far behind?): “A small video game company based in Los Angeles, Vodeo Games, became the first union shop in the entire industry in December. A dozen Vodeo employees affiliated with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), which has long represented media industry labor in news, cable TV and broadcasting.”
The article notes that Vodeo’s founder, Asher Vollmer, said “Unionization is the right move for the game industry. It is notorious for taking advantage of workers’ passion by forcing employees to work long hours.”
What, wait? Why, that happens routinely in certain unionized industries, too!
As to whether this is an augury or an exception, and whether a union brushfire will sweep across SoCal-based gaming giants like Activision Blizzard, Riot Games, and others, the article also says that “it’s an open question how suited digital media — and the tech sector generally — is to industry-wide labor conformity imposed by traditional union contracts. The digital workplace is known for the ‘gig economy’ of temp working, contract employment, and frequent job-hopping.”
Huh. That sounds pretty much like certain already/ostensibly unionized industries, too.
Well, fire season is still ahead of us, after all. See you here again when we’re that much closer to it.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”