Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Labor Wars

We live in warlike times, and the local front between Hollywood management and labor seems to be almost as hot as other battle areas.

The AMPTP, in response to the Writers Guild's Strike Rules, has now ramped up its rhetoric about how unhinged the WGA is -- "We are outraged" ..."It is troubling and irresponsible" -- and provides a handy FAQ on its website about how to go "Financial Core" and ignore the Writers Guild's strike rules:

If you are a full member of the WGA, the union may under some circumstances impose fines and other internal discipline in the event that you perform writing services during a strike. However, as explained below, you have the right to continue to work without the threat of fines if you resign your full membership with the WGA and become a “financial core” member...

For those of you relatively new to the animation biz, TAG went through this same malarkey in 1982. Then, we had a long strike. Then, the animation studios helpfully provided tips on how to resign from the union and "become a financial core member."

Which is a mis-characterization of the term "financial core." When you resign from the union, you become a non-member who has "financial core" status. You're no longer a member; you have picked up your ball and bat and gone home. But you have the right to work under union or guild jurisdiction so long as you pay the appropriate union/guild dues fees.

In 1982, we had a whole lot of people -- mostly at Disney -- who resigned from the union and went back to work a few days before the strike ended. The strike had dragged on for months, and studio lawyers advised various employees about "going financial core". And some employees, tired and desperate, bolted through that open doorway.

Since then, many have returned to full membership. Others have totally blanked on their resignations for a quarter century ago, and are shocked when somebody in TAG's office points their status out to them. Many are sorry they left.

I point all this out because in this corporatist age, when the monster companies that dislike paying employees a nickel more than they need to sling words around like "irresponsible" to characterize a union's attempts to get slightly more money for its members at a time when the top 1% of the population controls more national wealth than at any time in U.S. history, is a tiny bit disingenuous.

Companies are good at using the weapons at their disposal to get what they want. They wrap themselves in self-righteous morality when that's convenient, resort to the "it's business" line when that's most convenient. God knows I have disagreements with the WGAw, but we need to be clear on a couple of things:

The WGA is trying to get better treatment and more compensation for its members, and that's a good thing.

The AMPTP is using one of the more despicable tactics of the labor-management wars to damage an organization representing workers, and that's a bad thing.

All the talk from the moneyed elite about wanting to "empower and help" employees get a better shake in their day-to-day lives is mostly twaddle. Face it: The posturing and speech-making is designed to keep more of the wealth with the top bracket of income-earners.

Given the realities of corporate power, resigning from a labor organization is a really dumb thing to do. After all, if you honestly disagree with the leadership of your
union or guild, if you think the people in charge are a bunch of raving lunatics, then resigning is the equivalent of handing us they keys to the asylum.

(Richard Verrier of the Los Angeles Times writes a good piece this morning about why it's important for working stiffs farther down the economic food chain to get more than the occasional crumb.)

So the unchanging battle goes on. As I overheard an administrator say to a background artist at Disney decades ago: "If we give you more money, you'll just go out and spend it."

Update: In this continuing saga, the AMPTP (referenced above) has now pulled its biggest, baddest proposal off the table:

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 16 — Attempting to break a three-month impasse in contract negotiations with screenwriters, Hollywood producers withdrew a controversial proposal that would have retooled the entertainment industry’s decades-old practice of paying fees known as residuals for the re-use of movies and television programs on DVDs and elsewhere.

The proposal was withdrawn during a bargaining session this morning ...


Anonymous said...

Is it just me or what, but I feel that there's always an impeding strike from the WGA. It seems to happen every year.

Steve Hulett said...

They often practice brinkmanship, but they haven't struck over their contract since 1988.

Jeff Massie said...

Well, no. The AMPTP has always insisted on staggering the expiration dates of the contracts so the IA and the three big guilds (actors, directors and writers) never expire at the same time. It seems like there's always strike talk, or at the very least end-of-the-contract-what's-going-to-happen talk, because there's always a big contract coming up. SAG expires next year and there's already buzz.

And don't hold your breath that the producers' "major concession" is going to make any difference at all. This is the oldest trick in the book -- outrageous counterproposals followed by generous withdrawals. Look, we're such nice guys, we're not going to slaughter your children after we burn your house down.

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