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A neighborhood on the eastern edge of the L.A. basin and shorthand for the movie and television industries, Hollywood had its own city charter for fewer than ten years before being annexed by Los Angeles in 1910. By joining L.A., it gained access to the water supply then beginning to flow by aqueduct from the Owens Valley 233 miles to the north.

D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplan filmed there but now, in fact, studios and related businesses are situated throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area with particular concentrations in Culver City, Burbank, the San Fernando Valley and – of course – the part of town known as Hollywood.

Incidentally, West Hollywood is a recently-formed municipality (adjacent to Beverly Hills), which became a separate city with 35,000 residents in 1984. This happened largely though the organizing efforts of an active gay community – including some from the movie business – which gravitated to this “unincorporated area” in the 1930s to 1970s to escape the violently homophobic LAPD.

I wouldn’t appreciate these distinctions if I didn’t live in this region. But there’s a singularly important feature about Hollywood – the industry – that is also usually overlooked. With large-scale domestic manufacturing off-shored and de-unionized, film and television production may now be the most heavily unionized sector in the American economy.

Much of the stuff (content) you watch when you go to the movies, turn on your TV, and – increasingly – access through the internet and your cell phone is union-made.

In my work in the Southern California Labor Movement, I got a look at the complicated web of unions and guilds which represent a mostly freelance workforce of actors, camera operators, make-up artists, writers, prop masters, grips, truck drivers, directors, script supervisors, stunt men and women, studio teachers and nurses.

Though the goal – to represent as many workers in the industry as possible – can be diverted by the ongoing fractious battles within and among the various labor organizations, I believe that the Hollywood guilds and unions do an admirable job of promoting and protecting the material needs of its members while containing and channeling their aspirations and frustrations.

Just consider what they’re up against.

The global corporations which control information, news, media and entertainment are among the most powerful and influential entities on the planet: Disney (ABC), Viacom (Paramount), Time Warner (Warner Bros.), Sony (Columbia Pictures) CBS (Showtime), NBC Universal (A & E) and Murdock’s News Corp. (Fox).

Why don’t these conglomerates follow the path of the rest of the corporate world and simply do away with their pesky American unions? Maybe the arcane jurisdictional structure of the Hollywood guilds are just too entrenched to untangle and discard.  Or that the status quo serves another important strata of the Hollywood “elite” – the directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors and others – who belong to, and help govern, these unions and guilds.

Some would argue that the global capital and technological strategies of these employers will eventually disable the unions anyway. But the fact is that film and television producers continue – at least for now – to cut deals with the collective representatives of their employees. These includes the so called “above the line” unions: The Directors Guild, The Writers Guild and the newly-merged Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists); and the “below the line” unions: The IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employee – the “IA”) the Teamsters and others.

I had no idea when I started in the Labor Movement in the 1980s that I would get my foot in the (back) door of “the business” by working with some of the entertainment industry unions and guilds.

Though I barely knew which end of the camera to look through, I was hired-on for some interesting projects by IA Local 600 – the Cinematographers Guild. This below-the-line union includes extraordinarily talented, technically brilliant and enterprising members of the camera crew who work under the Director of Photography. The DP is responsible for how the scene is lit and looks, works closely with the Director, ranks high in the industry hierarchy and can earn quite a bit of money per project.

When three regional camera locals were consolidated in the mid-1990s, I wrote and edited mail-outs to members about the merger and, among other things, helped launch a national newsletter and membership directory.

The Local 600 merger was in line with a larger trend within the IA to consolidate regional locals and various crafts. While this was taking place, the IA moved smartly to capture new work by tailoring contracts to the growing cable market, low-budget film production and – later – reality TV. Combining aggressive organizing “on the set” with hard-nosed negotiations with producers, the IA – despite its very parochial structure rooted in craft distinctions – pushed its way forward as an important force in the industry.

With few exceptions, the IATSE doesn’t run hiring halls. Getting a job – whether you’re a sound engineer, hair stylist, costumer or key grip – depends on your reputation for reliability, knowledge of the job, resourcefulness, creativity, and networking skills.

Hourly scale for many jobs on a pre, post and production crew average about $40 an hour and often include overtime and double-time pay.

Entertainment industry craft workers live in middle class neighborhoods all over Southern California. A ten or twenty year run of $85,000 – or more – gets you a decent house on a nice block.  But these camera assistants, make-up artists, set painters, script supervisors and others can regularly face dry periods in which they’re worried about losing their health benefits (not enough work-hours to qualify) – or worse – their homes.

You’re part of the rapidly-shrinking, high-wage working-class: competitive, high-pressure and subject to global economic cycles and an all-powerful industry. You tolerate intense and perpetual career anxiety in return for a premium job with intermittent high pay and a chance at a secure retirement.

Knitting this freelance universe together are the unions. Certainly some complain that their reps don’t do enough to protect them from exploitive producers or that the contracts give the bosses too much of the pie. Though serious problems do hamper this system of representation, most members clearly recognize that without a union they’d be fodder for industry abuse.

In fact, the global media giants who run these industries are always wagging their finger at the unions to remind them how eager other regions are for the work.

Nothing worries L.A.-based entertainment industry guilds more than “runaway production.” U.S. cities and states and foreign nations lure productions with tax incentives and state-of-the-art sound stages. Profit-driven capital, always seeking to reduce labor costs, pits region against region and nation against nation.

City and Southern California film promotion officials have tried to keep the work in town by, among other things, making permits for location shoots easier and calming neighborhood residents who feel invaded by film crews (in other parts of the country, a film crew on your street is an exciting occasion).

That has worked to an extent, particularly when coupled with the advantages of easy access to L.A.’s large talent pool and existing infrastructure such as visual effects and editing facilities. But the question remains: can this region compete head-on with increasingly generous incentives from North Carolina to New Zealand (complicated by the fact that location shooting in various regions in the U.S. and Canada may be covered under a union contract).

Location shooting has largely replaced the studio back lots. Seventy-five years ago, huge studios, covering thousands of acres of prime Southern California land, employed thousands of full-time workers in industrial movie-making factories. It was L.A.’s equivalent (along with the now substantially diminished aircraft and aerospace businesses) to Pittsburgh’s steel mills and Detroit’s auto plants.  The 20th Century Fox lot near Rancho Park was once several times its current size but sold much of its land to high-rise developers in what is now Century City.

Nevertheless, L.A. remains ground zero for this industry and its unionized writers, artisans and actors who give this region a creative ambiance. Talk to a costume designer or a camera operator to get a sense of what really happens on the set. You’ll find that the view from the Hollywood working class is quite distinct from the manufactured “celebrity culture,” used to sell the entertainment “product.”

Over the years when I tell friends outside the region about my high regard for the Hollywood workforce, I sometimes hear disparaging remarks about the crappy movies, worthless network one-hour episodic dramas, and laugh-track-laced, inane sitcoms. Reminds me of how much of the blue-collar, assembly-line workforce in the 60s and 70s was ridiculed for manufacturing worthless consumer goods or – worse – contributing to the “war machine.”

Keep in mind that it’s the corporate owners and producers who pander to and manipulate popular taste and appeal to the crass instincts of the entertainment consumer. The role of working-class institutions is to ensure that those who do the work get their share of the rewards.

Can you really criticize an actor who gets a central role in a McDonald’s commercial (which, if she’s lucky and the spot gets widely used, could trigger residuals which cover half of her mortgage for the next two years)?

Working with AFTRA – I helped build ties with political and labor leaders and raised money for an annual awards event – widened my view of working actors and other talented professionals in that union including broadcast journalists, radio hosts, recording musicians, sportscasters, singers and more.

I was impressed by the dedication of the staff and the considerable time and energy put in – unpaid – by elected leaders from the ranks.  The smaller of the two Hollywood actor unions, AFTRA positioned itself for the recent merger with SAG by aggressively securing contracts with TV producers after the failure of the previous merger vote eight years earlier.

Much is made of the contentious and sometimes vicious battles within and among Hollywood unions.  The Writers Guild strike of 2007, for example (which some say helped establish a more equitable residuals formula), was criticized by many in the IA for causing an overall drop in industry jobs.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I prefer to look at the “big picture” regarding these conflicts.  As I’ve watched union power diminish and disappear across the country, the infighting in Hollywood can be construed as a sign of life.  While you can argue that brutal battles inside the Labor Movement simply serve the employer class, the approval by union members of the actors’ merger shows a willingness to adapt and fight on.

Finally, there’s been a significant shift, I think, in how entertainment industry performers, artisans and skilled technicians self-identify. The threat of out-sourcing, job-eliminating technologies, and corporate consolidation has propelled many members to understand that – no matter how big they are – they’re not immune to being crushed by the system; that even in their relatively privileged positions, they have a great deal in common with the rest of the region’s working-class.

Hollywood unions in fact have become a much more significant and visible part of the L.A. Labor Movement.  Compared to 25 years ago, you’ll now find film and television union leaders and activists side-by-side at solidarity rallies with registered nurses, construction workers, fire fighters, janitors, supermarket clerks, flight attendants, housekeepers and public school teachers.

Above and below the line, unionized performers, grips, gaffers, keys and “best boys” – including many A-list actors, directors and writers – recognize the value and necessity of keeping this industry “union”.  Macro economic trends and the sheer size and power of media conglomerates will exert ongoing pressure to weaken the collective nature of this workforce.  But, for now at least, Hollywood holds the brand as America’s highest-profile union town.

Originally posted to laborlou on Tue Aug 14, 2012 at 07:50 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (21+ / 0-)

    Lou Siegel is a Labor educator and consultant, working with Los Angeles unions in communications, public policy and fundraising

    by laborlou on Tue Aug 14, 2012 at 07:50:13 PM PDT

  •  CWA local 6086 (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    MsGrin, Tinfoil Hat

    80 % of success is showing up

    Corporate is not the solution to our problem

    Corporate is the problem

    by Churchill on Tue Aug 14, 2012 at 07:56:59 PM PDT

  •  I wish I was in IATSE local 871 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    80 % of success is showing up

    Corporate is not the solution to our problem

    Corporate is the problem

    by Churchill on Tue Aug 14, 2012 at 07:58:18 PM PDT

  •  best industry also most unionized-film & TV Prodt (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, JWK, jjellin, Dirtandiron

    As much as our owners hate the unions the most unionized industry is also our most internationally competative.

    80 % of success is showing up

    Corporate is not the solution to our problem

    Corporate is the problem

    by Churchill on Tue Aug 14, 2012 at 07:59:49 PM PDT

  •  So many jobs lost to 'runaway' productions (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Gooserock, UnionMade, Tinfoil Hat

    Courtesy of those 'admirable businessmen' who found that they could go to other countries (I won't begrudge other US states) and film, getting huge financial incentives from governments and doing local hires for pennies - never mind if the quality wasn't comparable to experienced workers in the US. It started with Canada, then New Zealand, a few others, and culminated in a full-fledged rush to Eastern Europe, especially Bulgaria, where an entire crew of 80 people could be paid something like $1000 a week total. And through creative bookkeeping, deals with corrupt governments and local organized crime, producers could arrange for themselves to make millions from the 'budget' and smuggle it out (in cash) to western banks. Oh, and be able to keep stables of local prostitutes/mistresses, and sometimes entire second 'secret' families unknown to wife and kiddies at home.

    Truly the kind of business Rmoney would approve of. Do I sound a little bitter?

    (romney)/RYAN 2012 - You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

    by Fordmandalay on Tue Aug 14, 2012 at 08:23:24 PM PDT

    •  Agree, but not when it comes to "other US states" (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tinfoil Hat, Dirtandiron

      "Location" shooting within the States can function as a kind of off-shoring. And I say that as one who made my living as a Union performer without ever working in LA.

      A lot of production goes to the "fly-over states" (as the NY and LA media hubs call them), not for the sake of the unique location, but for the opportunity to evade the various Unions--especially the performers' Union(s).

      I don't know how it goes within the craft and tech Unions, but performers are constantly urged to (or bullied into) claiming financial core status, which deprives them of nominal Union membership status, but which allows them to hop on and off the Union card at will. It also means that they will not honor a strike, nor will they consider themselves scabs when they cross the picket line.

      There are lots of ways to entice a performer off the card. "This will get you famous" is amazingly effective.

      Or the employer might offer a quantity of work at a salary well below scale (for example, paying commercial voiceover artists by the hour instead of per commercial, and skipping niceties like residuals).

      The performer may fleetingly regret not getting the health and pension credits for that job, but this disadvantage is balanced by not having to declare the income to the IRS, because this pay often comes under the table. (And the employer won't make Social Security, Medicare, or state insurance contributions, either.)

      As I said, I don't know how much this stuff happens with crew and craft Unions. But it's done a lot of damage to the performers' solidarity and  bottom lines.

  •  I just got on the MPEG roster, but having trouble (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    finding Union work :(

    I'm really quite tired of working on Indie films where quality and pay seem to be low priorities, and I'm no slouch having worked for Francis Ford Coppola where I finally felt my work was appreciated.


    "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities" Voltaire.

    by JWK on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 04:08:51 AM PDT

  •  Thanks! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tinfoil Hat, Dirtandiron

    I knew quite a bit from relatives in the business, but this is a great overview.

    "Right to work" is another huge con job, up there with "death taxes" and "voter fraud."

    Where would any of us be without the hard-won accomplishments of unions?

    Surprise, we live in a Left-Of-Center Nation! Act accordingly.

    by VA Gal on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 04:12:01 AM PDT

  •  2 words - Reality TV (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jjellin, Dirtandiron

    Seeing as most "contestants" are not actors, don't pay union dues, and continue to drive down the accepted quality of work...

    I'm just waiting for the next shot across the bow at the unions.  I'm betting it becomes contests to write/direct, etc...

    People doing free work in the hope they will become famous enough to get paid.

    I don't blame Christians. I blame Stupid. Which sadly is a much more popular religion these days.

    by detroitmechworks on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 05:09:27 AM PDT

  •  A necessary reminder (4+ / 0-)

    I have all sorts of venom for "Hollywood," but I always clarify that I mean by that the business model that developed in the 1930's, whereby investors ("back East" at that time) pooled money under a guarantee of a return, and the product was a matter of supreme indifference. All that mattered was a regular return, and therefore studios were run by people with an eye solely on return-on-investment. When, in the 1970's, that mentality was married with the illusions and delusions of the focus group and market psychology, the result was the safe product -- the movie like the last movie (romantic comedies, in particular, but comedies, too).

    The labor side has always been admirable in the extreme. This is art as labor, and the unions are the last outpost of the 1920's ethos of the artisan-artist union in America.

    CEO culture against artisan culture, though, is a mismatch. Toronto, North Carolina, Georgia, and then Tunisia and Ukraine all suck productions and offer the non-union wage, as if that were the key to profits.

    Labor is not a cost. Labor is the product. Administration is a cost. Marketing is a cost. Freebies to critics are a cost. Labor is not.

    Everyone is innocent of something.

    by The Geogre on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 05:11:40 AM PDT

    •  Well said. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The Geogre

      The Republican motto: "There's been a lot of progress in this country over the last 75 years, and we've been against all of it."

      by Hillbilly Dem on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 06:20:43 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  labor is a profit center (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Tinfoil Hat, The Geogre

      otherwise, there would be no paid work, period.

      Companies, like Walmart (biggest employer), make money off their workers.  Simple as that.  Workers move product, move customers, and move money into Walmart's pockets.  In return for doing that well, the workers get a little take home pay . . . just enough to make sure they come back after they've had a little food and sleep to do it again the next day.

      •  And we are ALL labor (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The other side of that is that the supreme false consciousness is that a group has been encouraged to think of "them" as "labor" and itself as "executive" or "management." The truth is that the executive is labor, too, just as he is a consumer of someone else's product, and the false distinctions, with their enmity, help immorality seem like wisdom.

        When an executive says, "We need to cut costs? Well, I don't do that much to help the company, so I should leave," I'll believe what they say. Until then, there is no need to cut costs. There is only a desire to increase returns on the investment of the capitalist, and the capitalist is the ultimate in non-productive forces.

        Everyone is innocent of something.

        by The Geogre on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 01:25:49 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  one nit (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          The Geogre

          most managers are labor, too, I agree with you on that, but the CEO's, supposedly worker bees of a highly salaried variety, are often really owners, with their shareholders pretty well "shackled" without any power, who pretty much rubber stamp whatever the "executive" wants--largely because the executives and their governing boards (haha) are all of the same class, and scratching each others backs

  •  This would explain why (0+ / 0-)

    labor unions are still a big factor in the fictional society of television and movies, even while it has vanished from real life.

    ¡Cállate o despertarás la izquierda! - protest sign in Spain

    by gjohnsit on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 05:20:08 AM PDT

  •  Interesting angle, and nicely done. Thanks! n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  Interesting post. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    My son was just invited to join the Writers' Guild. He is thrilled.

  •  I'd add this to the West Hollywood story (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tinfoil Hat, Dirtandiron

    While gay activists played a large role, the primary issue was rent control.  A newly conservative Board of Supervisors in the early 1980s tried to seriously weaken rent control in unincorporated county areas (including West Hollywood).  Maintaining and strengthening rent control was a major issue in West Hollywood's incorporation, lead by the Coalition for Economic Survival.  Before the state legislature (controlled by Republicans) eliminated strong local rent control, West Hollywood was a leader in renter protection (along with Santa Monica and Berkeley).

  •  i'm glad you mentioned CES... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ... rent control was an essential issue in the West Hollywood cityhood drive.

    Lou Siegel is a Labor educator and consultant, working with Los Angeles unions in communications, public policy and fundraising

    by laborlou on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 06:54:25 AM PDT

  •  interesting analysis (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thank you for this- I had to read quick, but I want to go back and read more carefully

    I think you are on to something about the usefulness of unions not just for workers but for the economy (and society) as a whole

    I have to say that I had not thought about Hollywood as a union town before, but you are right--at least within the parameters you discuss, the movie industry

    But I'm wondering how this translates to those outside of the movie industry

  •  Interesting subject. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I won't be able to follow through until this evening but am curious to know if you're familiar with the not all that distant history of the IATSE and other unions.

    Hollywood is clearly an example of the benefits that unions offer in terms of financial stability and quality of life - but it's
    not Utopia by any means.

    Forever is composed of nows. Emily Dickinson

    by brook on Wed Aug 15, 2012 at 09:27:42 AM PDT

  •  Article today in Los Angeles Times talks of (0+ / 0-)

    challenges facing Los Angeles productions due to tax concessions from other states and countries.

    Los Angeles losing the core of its TV production to other states

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