People fault Hollywood’s unions (“guilds”) for being too soft, too glitzy, and too privileged to be considered “real” unions in the way the UAW, Teamsters, and Longshoremen are “real.” While there are some obvious differences between industrial unions and Hollywood guilds (for example, at any point in time, roughly 85-percent of Screen Actors Guild members are out of work, which seems crazy), that criticism is a bit misleading.
If we take traditional left-wing politics as evidence of a trade union’s commitment, then we need look no further than the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The WGA is about as left-wing as any outfit you’ll find. Granted, given the post-Reagan tilt to the right, that may not be quite as true today as it was, say, in the 1960s and ‘70s, but it’s still close. And if you compare the WGA’s lefty sensibilities with those of “real” unions, they look like the second-coming of Gus Hall.
Which brings us to comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. I’ve always been a fan of Ellen’s. Although, unlike most reviewers, I didn’t think her latest Oscar hosting performance was worth a flying gee-whiz (too much goofing around and too much schmoozing with the audience), she’s always made me laugh and always seemed eminently likeable.
In 2007, the WGA went on strike. Ellen, a WGA member, was criticized for crossing the picket line. Normally, when you do that, it automatically makes you a scab. But in the case of Hollywood’s convoluted guild system—Writers Guild, Directors Guild of America (DGA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG)— these things tend not to be as cut-and-dried as they are with those “real” unions.
Briefly, there were some weird factors in ’07. For one, Ellen was/is also a member of AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), which supposedly had a no-strike clause barring her from recognizing WGA pickets. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s what I read. For another, it was the WGA East (the New York branch) that criticized her. The Hollywood branch of the WGA remained conspicuously silent.
And for another, while the WGA East singled out Ellen, they didn’t go after three other obvious targets—Oprah, Rachel Ray, and Dr. Phil—none of whom, unlike Ellen, went on a one-day “sympathy strike” with the writers before (reluctantly we like to think) crossing that picket line. Moreover, by all accounts, the writers didn’t hold a grudge. Apparently, they understood her dilemma.
Again, I’m not making excuses for union members who scab. We all know what scabbing means, and we all know the punishment a scab deserves (and used to receive back in the good old days, before the courts changed all that). But Hollywood is different. It shouldn’t be different, but it is. And when you belong to multiple unions, as Ellen DeGeneres does, it’s even more different.
But here’s an account of something that disappointed us way more than the Ellen episode did. In the 1980s I was one of the union negotiators who called a strike at an industrial site. After setting up pickets at four gates and the railroad track, we contacted the Teamsters and asked them to honor our picket lines. They responded with a questionnaire. Here’s a copy of it:
“Name and address of union:
Name and address of company:
Nature of the company’s business:
Is the employer represented by or a member of an employer association?
Is the company a division or subsidiary of another company?
NATURE OF THE DISPUTE:
Is a strike now in progress?
Is there a picket line?
Location of picket line if not the same as above company address:
Reason for strike or picket line:
Does your union have an existing or recently expired contract with this employer?
If so, give the expiration date:
Is your union the bargaining representative of the employees involved, pursuant to NLRB certification?
Has your union ever been decertified as the bargaining representative of the employees involved?
Is a petition for an election pending with the NLRB?
Has an unfair labor practice been filed with NLRB?
Are any other unions involved?
Does your union have strike sanction from your International union and/or Intermediate Body?”
This surprised us. It was more complicated than applying for a home loan. Our strike lasted 57 days, but we never heard back from the Teamies. The truth of the matter is that ever since Taft-Hartley (1947), union solidarity has been under attack. One union can’t legally support the strike of another, which totally undermines any hope of concerted action. Which is exactly what Corporate America wants.
David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition), is a former union rep. Dmacaray@earthlink.net