Strike: The Case For Unions|
Wow, it's been quite a while since I sat down and hammered out a Film Biz column! The short version of why has revolved around a combination of family health issues (bad) and a lot of work (good). When last I wrote, the film industry was staring down the barrel of a proposed writers strike. Many of us in the industry assumed that , in the unlikely event of a work stoppage, things would be resolved quickly and without much fanfare. Boy were we wrong!
As we all know work stoppage did occur. Furthermore, it lasted for weeks effectively eradicating the possibility of a traditional television pilot season and throwing many people into dire financial straits (refer to previous FB 101 for advice about saving) Well, the strike ended and slowly, VERY slowly, work began again.
While work has been forthcoming things are still not back to normal. One of the main reasons for this is the potential SAG strike. Because of what happened with the WGA, and what may happen with SAG, the general tone in Hollywood is quite guarded. Studios and producers are slow to go forward with projects because we are again facing a strike and there is a very real fear of what may happen if it does occur. In fact, I can name two MAJOR motion pictures that actually worked a hiatus into their shooting schedule as a safety measure. The effect of these strikes, or potential strikes, reaches much farther than the "deep pockets" of the studios and producers . They affect the below the line, the support staff, the post production facilities, etc. We're talking about people's lives and livliehoods. Plus it forces the general public to watch reruns and bad reality shows!
Does all of this piss me off? You bet it does! Would I change anything? Probably not much. Right about now you probably think I'm developing a split personality but I'm not. As someone who makes his living in the film industry, these strikes, real or potential, directly affect my ability to provide for my family and that is a very bad thing. Conversely, as a union member, I'm inclined to support these strikes in order to support and protect union members. Let me say that again. I support the existence of guilds and unions as a means of protecting the people who don't have the deep pockets 'cause that's what they're for. Now, before pointing out the 20 Mil salaries of Jim Carrey or Mel Gibson, it is important to understand that they are the exception NOT the rule. The negotiations that led to the WGA strike, as well as the current SAG negotiations (or lack thereof), center on pay increases and compensation for forms of distribution that didn't exist just a few years ago.
These increases are comparable to a "cost of living" increase for a retail worker and will primarily affect the rank and file folk who do their jobs but aren't mega-stars. These are the character actors that we recognize but don't know by name, the featured background artists, and specifically the people who have to work second jobs to make ends meet.
The other major point in these disputes revolves around the paying of residuals for new media distribution. We all know that movies and TV shows can be seen or distributed via the internet, but since this is a new form of distribution it has never been contractually addressed.
Logically, if the artists receive royalties for the traditional distribution methods (theatrical, broadcast, VHS, DVD) and the studios and producers are making money on the traditional methods AS WELL AS the new methods, well, shouldn't they get a fair cut? Of course they should. Which is why I, guardedly, supported the WGA strike. I say guardedly because, in the case of the WGA, the strike and the negotiations were not handled in as professional a way as possible. In fact, the attitude of the WGA negotiators and the handling of negotiations was so haphazard that Tom Short, President of the IATSE, sent a strongly worded open letter hoping that they'd come to their senses. This translates to: The cause was just but the methods were suspect. Still, I felt a need to support them and further feel something positive in the fact that Unions work.
This leads me to explain my pro-union position. Since most unions and guilds function similarly, rather than deal with SAG or the WGA in particular, I will address the IATSE, which governs the vast majority of workers in the film industry, and what it does for its members. The IATSE stands for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The IA, as itís referred to, is a labor union for non-actors in the entertainment industry. The IA got its start in 1893 by offering union benefits to people who worked for live stage performances. Nowadays there are over 400 ďlocalsĒ, or regional unions, that compose the overall group and they encompass theater, motion pictures, and television. Some of these locals include wardrobe design, backstage workers, camera operators, people who design sets, construction, transportation, and, of course, hair and make-up.
In the world of professional filmmaking all of the major studios like Fox, Paramount, Universal, WB, etc. are IA signatories. This means that they have entered into a contractual agreement with the IA. Based on this agreement major productions can only hire union employees and they are required to fulfill certain financial obligations to the folks they hire. As a byproduct of this, and as a pro-union protection, every group of employees on a project must belong to a union, or the other groups will strike.
In order to join the IA you must meet a predetermined criteria of experience and/or training in your field. Then, if you are deemed eligible to join, it usually requires a test, or series of tests followed by a substantial initiation fee. In addition to this, once in, people who belong to an IA local must pay yearly or quarterly dues to maintain their membership. To frost the cake being in the union doesn't even guarantee that you will have work!
So, why am I pro-union? Well, if you are working, union members are eligible for health care benefits, investment plans, and retirement benefits. As anyone who works in the entertainment industry knows, a freelance employee constantly moves from job to job, so maintaining these benefits is extremely difficult. The IA provides a kind of employment umbrella to protect its members and aid them in maintaining those benefits.
In addition to the aforementioned benefits, the union also ensures that employees have standardized rates of pay, proper and safe working conditions, opportunities to learn more about their respective craft, safety training, a system to handle disputes, legal protections, etc.
While this all sounds great to me over the years Iíve heard many, usually non-union, people complain about unions. These complaints normally focus on three main points:
Unions tend to keep people out.
While this is true to a degree Iíll point out that the reason for this is to establish minimum qualifications and standards. Generally union employees are well paid and production is required to pay their pension, health, and welfare as well. It would stand to reason that, if a production if spending all that money, they'd like some assurance that the person they're spending it on is qualified for the job. Itís funny, but no one bitches about doctors having to join the AMA or lawyers join the Bar Association.
The structure of the IA wonít let people perform more than one type of work.
Again, true. You see, when someone joins a local they join the one that governs a specific craft and, once you are in, thatís the job you do. You canít be an electrician/makeup artist or even a hairdresser/makeup artist. This ensures that only experienced professionals, essentially specialists, are hired onto productions. This means that an employee will do one job well rather than two jobs half well. It also ensures that the work is spread around amongst other union members. Personally, I like the idea that the guy hanging the 80lb lights over my head isn't also worrying about what kind of snack to serve in the afternoon.
We live in a right to work state.
This is true but misleading. Florida, as well as 21 other states, is considered a "Right to work state" but this doesnít mean that you donít have to be a union member to work on a union project. Right-to-work laws prevent unions from making membership or dues a condition of employment before or after hire. However, the Taft-Hartley Act allows employers to operate as a "union shop" which is basically a contract with the union. Under "union shop" rules, all new employees must join the union within a minimum period after being hired or, at least, pay the dues but they canít be fired for not joining and the union can't force the employer to fire them, either.
So what does all this mean? Well, unions are a powerful source of protection and, although I don't like the idea of strikes and the subsequent lost work, I can't begrudge my union brothers and sisters fair treatment. So I'll just have to hope that the studios come to their senses before their hands are forced.
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