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A Tale of Two Unions

When union people are tempted to unload publicly on another union—to get down and dirty with them—they should take a moment to consider Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum, the so-called Eleventh Commandment:  “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.”

As much as it bothers me to quote Reagan favorably, his advice makes sense for organized labor.  After all, with membership dwindling, congressional opposition deep and entrenched, and public support tepid and unreliable at best, unions have enough “external” problems on their plate without being hounded and second-guessed by their brethren.

So let’s not 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.”

First, there’s no denying that certain labor unions, by virtue of the industry they represent and the hand that was dealt them, have inherent advantages and disadvantages that fall outside their ability to control or even affect.  When interstate trucking was federally regulated and the Teamsters had the muscle to negotiate national contracts for an entire industry, Hoffa was a working-class hero and his Teamies were princes of the highways.

But once trucking was deregulated, everything changed for the Teamsters.  They went from ruling the roost to being just one more chicken in the henhouse.  Context is everything.  Except in the rarest of instances, a union bargaining team pretty much gets what management is prepared to give them.  When things are going well, the union will usually get a taste of the gravy; but when they take a turn for the worse, look out, because it’s going to get ugly.

The UAW (United Auto Workers) is a perfect example.  During the fifties and sixties, when the U.S. dominated the world auto market and money was pouring into Detroit, the UAW was, arguably, not only the most influential and accomplished union in American history, it was the gold standard for every other union in the country.  Everybody wanted to copy the UAW.  And why wouldn’t they?

The UAW’s top-of-the-line contracts were loaded with everything a union member could hope for:  good wages and benefits, a safe, clean work environment, and contract language guaranteeing the dignity of the workers.  An AWPPW (Assoc. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers) official once told me that during a contract negotiation he’d been part of, years earlier, the company rep from Georgia-Pacific had angrily dismissed the union’s ambitious agenda by responding, “Who do you think you are . . . the UAW?”

Of course, since those “glory days,” it’s all been downhill, not only for the union representing the auto workers (which saw hundreds of thousands of layoffs, not to mention a litany of concessions for those lucky enough to hang on to their jobs), but for the companies that employed them.  Through greed, shortsightedness and the emergence of the Asian market, the auto industry has taken a tremendous hit, one that clobbered the Big Three, and took the UAW down with it.

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.

Since September 6, approximately 27,000 IAM members in three states have been on strike against the Boeing Corporation, having rejected Boeing’s “last, best and final” offer by an 80% vote, and having voted to go on strike by a whopping 87%.

These numbers not only reflect tremendous union support, but given the fact that Boeing is wallowing in billions of dollars in profits and facing an ever increasing backlog of orders, they suggest that it’s only a matter of time before Boeing management steps up to the plate and—truculent rhetoric aside—sweetens their offer.

This is not to say the Machinists will 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.

It’s been almost four months since SAG’s contract with the Alliance has expired (it ended June 30), and SAG’s leadership, led by Allan Rosenberg and Douglas Allen, is now in the embarrassing position of having to practically plead with the AMPTP to reconvene contract talks.  Whatever leverage they initially had going into this bargain has been sucked right out of it.

Besides SAG’s veiled threat of a possible strike not being taken seriously by the Producers—or, for that matter, by their own members—SAG’s internecine battle with  AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) made them look disorganized and, frankly, a bit desperate.

That battle with AFTRA, bold as the strategy was, more or less backfired on them.  Because Rosenberg and company thought AFTRA was too concession-minded, too afraid to oppose what SAG considered an inferior contract by the AMPTP, they tried to intervene in AFTRA’s internal politics by urging its members to vote down the Alliance’s offer.

Despite the criticism SAG took for what was portrayed as “disrespectful meddling” into another union’s internal politics, getting AFTRA to reject the offer would have been a brilliant coup, if only (1) it didn’t look so much like an old-fashioned “power play,” and (2) a contract rejection weren’t seen by timid AFTRA members as inching them closer to a possible strike.  Given that the writers (WGA) had just recently returned form a debilitating 100-day strike, nobody relished another one, at least not this soon.

As of this writing, SAG is in the unenviable position of attempting to stand up to the powerful Alliance without having anything resembling the show of support IAM members gave their parent union in calling the Boeing strike.  Union effectiveness begins and ends with solidarity.  Even with it, considering the situation the country is in today, you’re not guaranteed to win; but without it, you’re guaranteed to fail.

The AMPTP has continued to score points against SAG by repeatedly reminding everyone in Hollywood that the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, and AFTRA itself have all agreed to the same basic contract they’re offering SAG.  The Producers are trying to portray SAG leadership as unrealistically ambitious and ego-driven, dangerously out of touch with its own rank-and-file.

The irony here is that, despite the negative image and ridicule SAG is receiving (even their New York branch has been critical of them), they’re probably right in holding out.  They’re correct in trying to stand up for their membership; they’re correct in seeking improvements in residuals, DVD payments, and in the so-called New Media areas; and they’re correct in portraying the AMPTP as the greediest bastards this side of Wall Street.  Rosenberg and Allen are right.  And that’s the irony.

But as any union rep will tell you, when it comes to contract bargaining there’s no tool more valuable than the demonstrable and overwhelming support of the membership.  The IAM knows that.  The ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) knows it.  And SAG leadership knows it, too.  The problem is, they’re not sure they have it.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was formerly a labor union rep.  He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net

 

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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