A Word Clooney, Hanks and Baldwin Should Learn

Question:  What lesson could a group of Latino immigrants from a Chicago local of the United Electrical Workers (UE) possibly teach the glamour roster of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)?  Answer:  That there comes a time when lawyer talk needs to be replaced by civil disobedience and old-fashioned union muscle.

In December of 2008, Republic Windows and Doors, a Chicago manufacturing company, announced that it was going out of business, and—in violation of a federal law requiring 60 days notice before a shutdown—gave its employees a mere three days notice of the shutdown.

Disheartened by the news, frightened at the prospect of finding new jobs in a weakened economy, and outraged by the company’s cavalier attitude, the union reacted aggressively.  Instead of sitting down to discuss a compromise, they demanded full compensation (i.e., adequate severance and back pay for unused vacation time).

The company refused, using as its lame excuse the fact that the bank they were dealing with (Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America) was beset by problems created by the country’s financial mess, and, as their primary creditor, wouldn’t allow Republic Windows to make their employees whole.

In response, about 250 members of UE Local 1110 took matters into their own hands by occupying the building and refusing to leave.  It was an astonishingly bold and gutsy move.  Caught by surprise, the company offered to “discuss” the matter.  They promised to do “everything in their power” to see to it that these workers got what was coming to them, etc.  But first, they needed to abandon their sit-in.

The company told the union members that management couldn’t begin to seriously discuss a settlement so long as they were illegally occupying the premises.  They were guilty of criminal trespass and, after all, the law’s the law.  But the UE members held their ground.  “Settle the issue first, then we’ll leave,” they said.

Amazingly, the cops didn’t arrest people or crack heads; the company didn’t hire security goons to come in and clear the building; and, in the midst of a national monetary crisis and looming recession, the media’s slant seemed to favor the workers.  In the end the UE not only got what they were entitled to, they did it by showing solidarity.

To a labor union, solidarity is everything.  Solidarity is worth more than all the labor lawyers and seminar consultants money can buy; and that goes for any union members, whether they’re airline pilots, nurses, stevedores, or drop-dead gorgeous starlets who belong to SAG.

Despite all that rhetorical sweet-talk one hears from management about working together, reaching a consensus, having the “same goals,” and joining the “team,” etc., the one thing that companies truly fear—the one thing they dread—is union solidarity.  Why?  Because it’s the one variable they can’t control, and one that can wind up costing them lots of money.

SAG is currently in the midst of a labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), having been without a contract for nine months.  And while the AMPTP is the nominal “opposing party,” there’s other “opposition” in play—SAG’s own union membership.

Indeed, some months ago, a group of vocal members took out a full-page newspaper ad, deploring SAG’s militant tactics and criticizing its leadership.  Because companies in the middle of difficult contract negotiations rejoice when union members square off against each other, the AMPTP must have regarded this ad as manna from Heaven.

The members who publicly oppose the leadership of SAG president Alan Rosenberg and former chief negotiator Doug Allen (he was replaced by a more moderate employee in what amounted to a palace coup) happen to be Hollywood heavyweights—names like Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Alec Baldwin.

But unlike the majority of SAG members, Messrs. Hanks, Clooney and Baldwin won’t be negatively affected by the AMPTP’s latest contract offer.  While these guys are immune to worries about residuals and other boilerplate language, working actors and actresses aren’t immune; in fact, they fear that this contract will make it harder to earn a living.  It’s a competitive business, and they know what it means to be squeezed out.

So it breaks down this way:  On one side you have the biggest and richest stars in Hollywood expressing satisfaction with the deal; on the other side you have the Producers pleading poverty—claiming, with a straight face, that they can’t afford to move on New Media and other issues that Rosenberg and company are asking for; and in the middle you have Hollywood’s working actors, just looking to make a living in show biz.

The moderates running SAG want to muzzle the dissidents (actor/activists such as Scott Wilson, Kent McCord, Angel Tompkins, Alan Ruck, et al).  They want to keep them on the reservation, keep them at arm’s length, so they won’t disrupt negotiations with the Producers.

Which brings us to where the parties stand today.  SAG members face a classic rank-and-file dilemma.  Do they go along with the conventional wisdom and settle for what they consider to be an inferior contract, or do they follow the example of the folks at Republic Windows, and take it to another level?

Opinions are cheap.  In truth, no outsider can look into SAG and pretend they know what should be done.  But one thing is clear—and you don’t have to be an insider to see it:  The moment those big-name actors abandoned solidarity, they screwed their union.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

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