Thursday, 1 November 2012

YOU ASKED FOR IT!: Unions, Companies, & The Future!

Here's a striking question from reader Kit about the Writer's Guild of America and the writer's strike of a few years ago:
Would a better use of the WGA's resources have been instead of going on a strike that by every account I see was an enormous waste of time and resources but to get a deal signed (even if it was not a great one) and save their resources to build up a war chest and then hit the studios with a bunch of lawsuits over lack of residuals?

Meaning: If you have a writer and it looks like they are not being paid what they were promised and the studio is making a dubious claim of "lack of profit" hit the studio with a lawsuit. 
Go on a warpath -Apache style.

Would that have been a better idea?
I wrote extensively about the last WGA writer's strike when it happened, and I've also written a lot about union issues.

Unions are born from bad management. If a company is run well, the treatment of employees never becomes a problem. However Hollywood, despite what the so-called "experts" say is not really a business run on the sort of capitalist lines laid out by economist and philosopher Adam Smith.

It's actually more like the old system of feudalism where a small elite own everything and try their hardest to keep the peasantry from getting anything for themselves. Instead of the invisible hand raising the living standards and prosperity of both labor and capital Hollywood has the all too visible grasping hand.
Hence you have unions.
But the unions in Hollywood have a hard road to hoe because of three fundamental problems:
1. UNITY- The studios have presented a united front in the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP). The unionized workers that negotiate with the AMPTP are divided among the WGA (Writers) the DGA (Directors) SAG-AFTRA (Actors/TV Presenters) and the alphabet soups of guilds, unions and associations for the skilled tradespeople of the movie business. 
The AMPTP are past masters of keeping those unions from presenting a united front even though there are many cases of overlap in their concerns and even membership.  

2. LITIGATION- Suing the major studios is a fools errand. They are small parts of massive multinational media conglomerates who do not want some judge putting down the precedent of paying people what they've earned. So they have legions of lawyers who are perfectly capable of dragging out lawsuits into infinity through delaying tactics, counter-suits, and endless appeals. The object isn't to win, but to delay actually paying anyone anything until the litigants are too broke to fight any further and will accept pennies on the dollar in a settlement, or they've died of old age.
Unions will need massive war chests if they're going to fight studios in court, because they could easily end up skinned by the studio lawyers.

And that's without the interference of....
3. POLITICS- One can learn a lot from the Mafia. A key Mafia tactic was to make sure that they had friends in both national political parties. Now they would give preferences if one party dominated one particular area, but on a national level they made sure that both sides of the aisle had been buttered.
Hollywood has forgotten that lesson. 
Jack Valenti, who ran the studio's lobbying arm the MPAA from the dawn of time until a few years ago was a master of keeping both parties on the side of the industry. Since his departure though the industry, both labor and capital have put all of their eggs in the basket of the Democratic Party.

This is a recipe for trouble. The labor can't count on their party to protect their interests because they're too busy protecting the interests of the big-wigs who give then not only financial support for their campaigns but "favored nation" status in media coverage, and cushy jobs after their political careers are over.

This means that the Democrats take Hollywood for granted. They know that no matter what they do Hollywood's top power players will support them 100% and the majority will follow.

This means that the Republicans view Hollywood, and the majority of their big media parent companies as the enemy.   

One side either swings between completely ignoring the concerns of Hollywood, or doing the bidding of the big-media fat-cats when it suits them, and if the other side was to do anything involving Hollywood it would involve screwing both the companies and the unions into the ground.

That's not healthy for the studios or the unions.

To get past these problems, the unions need to do three things:

1. UNITE. They need to form into one big Voltron like mega-body capable of saying to the studios that an attack on one is an attack on all. 

2. ADJUST ATTITUDE. The leadership of the unions have to realize that they are part of the business landscape and that it is their job to make themselves redundant. That means dropping the whole "man the barricades!" and "bring down the capitalist running dogs!" attitude that's all too common in union rhetoric, and presenting themselves as a vital and important partner in the movie business.

Then use this to...

3. MAKE ALLIES. Once all the unions learn to work together, and have assumed the role of partner instead of revolutionary they can then seek allies. Key ally can be found in the financiers on whom the studios are dependent to finance their movies, and the major shareholders of the big media companies like the pension funds and other institutional investors. They're getting jerked around too, and if the unions can make the case that it's all management's fault, they can all join together for that management to be reformed.


  1. Blast Hardcheese2/11/12 11:16 am

    I found this interesting:
    "The leadership of the unions have to realize that they are part of the business landscape and that it is their job to make themselves redundant."

    True and rational, but it'll never happen. Like any bureaucracy, the unions will run straight into Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law: Any bureaucracy will eventually become primarily dedicated to itself and its growth.

  2. But if they can't break the legs of people who vote the wrong way are they really a union?

    Rainforest Giant

  3. Blast- I was kinda giving a "in a perfect world" kind of scenario.

    RFG- The SAG leg breaking crew consists of Meryl Streep and Ed Asner. Watch out for Streep. :O

  4. This is one of the best articles you've ever done, IMO. Sure unions will stick around regardless, but when their members no longer care what the unions do, they lose their power.