Hollywood labour disputes have more desperate consequences than we realise

“Hollywood faces the threat of a second, crippling strike as the contract runs out between the biggest actors’ union and studio chiefs,” screams The Telegraph’s website at me this morning, while the news inevitably spreads like wildfire along the veins and conduits of the internet. “Actors strike to ruin Comic-Con!” “It’s happening again!” “Strike Two!”, … Continued

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“Hollywood faces the threat of a second, crippling strike as the contract runs out between the biggest actors’ union and studio chiefs,” screams The Telegraph’s website at me this morning, while the news inevitably spreads like wildfire along the veins and conduits of the internet. “Actors strike to ruin Comic-Con!” “It’s happening again!” “Strike Two!”, the headlines ripple across cyberspace and print magazines everywhere, the worst part of it being that the last one was written by me last month. While many are discussing the immediate issues of a potential work stoppage, few are considering exactly what this will do to the tenuous and fractious relationship that already exists between actor, studio and production.

But is there going to be a strike? The AMPTP claims, without detailing exactly how they arrived at the figure, that any industrial action by the SAG would cost Hollywood approximately $23 million (£11.5m) a day. That’s right, more money than most of us will ever see in our lifetimes, down the gaping maw of financial bleed should a table of grown men fail to let go of their pride and hubris, and work out a fair deal. Because that’s what it essentially comes down to, and understanding the history of the current situation is just as important as analysing the subtext in press releases and labour-management banter.

The WGA strikes may have garnered the most media attention so far due to the sensational images of red-boarded picket lines and the cessation of television show production, that opium of the masses that will guarantee even the most ardently a-political non-pundit will eventually have an opinion on the situation. However, the palpable sense of fear that surrounds this current round of sabre-rattling and bad mouthing was absent the last time. The SAG is easily the most powerful union in Hollywood, representing over 120,000 actors in television and motion pictures and the annual gross income of its members exceeds $4 billion. The producers knew this going into the next round of negotiations, and from the reports that are starting to trickle out, they had strategies in place to deal with the labour organisations that were finally beginning to gain confidence after being so thoroughly browbeaten into place during the Eighties. What they needed, it seemed, was a chink in the armour through which they could push their collective swords.

That opening came in the form of AFTRA and Roberta Reardon. After bandying about practically baseless (and most likely premeditated) accusations of member-poaching, the far smaller union, which represents 70,000 members (44,000 of which hold dual membership with the SAG) historically and very publicly split with the SAG and decided to bargain separately. Now, considering the amount of time that it took the WGA to hammer out a deal, and is taking the SAG now, AFTRA was in and out faster than you can say the word “shill”. Let’s not kid around, their contract deal is abysmal. It makes no significant gains in terms of the dreaded New Media residuals, nor does it adequately protect their members against negative industry practices later in the future. I won’t go into specifics, due to the fact that this column is rapidly turning into a dissertation (or rant, if you will) as it is, but the fact is that AFTRA sold out their members, body and soul, on goodness only knows what incentive.

SAG then started their ill-advised campaign of attempting to influence AFTRA members not to ratify the contract in eight days time. The schism between the two unions has now rapidly grown to a vast crevasse that may not be fully healed for decades, and certainly not without a great deal of tears and reconciliation. Meanwhile, the studio moguls and their labour lawyers have been laughing all the way to the bank. SAG now has the dubious distinction of being the only major union without a deal, without a negotiating partner, and isolated in the way that they’ve approached these setbacks.

What this does, now I’m finally back to my original point, is create an air of bitter, bitter animosity between actor and actor, union and union and, of course, between organised labour and management. If anybody trusts the AMPTP after the cunning way they’ve conducted themselves over these labour negotiations, they’re either ill informed or barking mad. Or the head of Disney. Either way, whether there’s a strike or not, the soured relationships will last for years to come. It’s not just bad for Hollywood as a whole, but also for unionism. Strike breaking, going over picket lines, dividing and conquering all leads to one thing that is literally taking place right before our eyes, which is union breaking and the loss of worker protection. New actors won’t be able to rely on their representative organisations as much as was possible before, and will end up being more and more exploited by an increasingly cynical industry.

My views may seem overly pro-union (which to be fair, as a union member myself, they are), but I have a personal stake in it as well. My sister is currently about to begin her theatrical training at one of the best institutions in the world, and undoubtedly afterwards she’ll work on American productions. I want her to have the best kind of labour protection that she can have, and I’m not the only one. Behind actors there are families, and dependents, and children aspiring to be the next big thing. Union breaking, which is what’s happening now, can only have serious and far-reaching consequences that extend beyond whether or not Transformers 2 will be released in May or December, ones that can have a very real effect on how hundreds of thousands of people live their lives. We should be far more concerned about that, rather than actors appearing at a convention at the end of July.