Movie Industry Strike Date Set
Yesterday, I came out of the internet anonymity closet and identified myself as having been employed for more than a decade by IATSE - the International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees. This was in connection with a C99 members' account of several instances of labor resistance around the country that included the news about IATSE movie and TV production employees voting to authorize an industry wide strike.
I scoffed at the the possibility of IATSE shutting down the industry. It has never happened before. I did not mention this yesterday, but my skepticism about a strike is based on the nature of that union and the nature of that industry. IATSE has, along with the other Hollywood unions, one of the last remaining Industry Wide contracts. Since the 1980s, most old school unions have disappeared along with the manufacturing jobs, but the motion picture industry is still operating under nationwide labor agreements.
This gives the entertainment industry unions more leverage than all the other unions where contracts tend to be isolated by facility. If you put a local TV station on strike, even one owned by a major network, all the other stations owned by that company continue to broadcast without a hiccup and overall cashflow remains strong.
For that reason, the movie production contract is extremely lucrative. In the camera department, the lowest paying job on a major movie is about $40 per hour. The Director of Photography makes over $100 per hour. The health and retirement benefits are just about the best available under union contract in the USA.
The catch for the entertainment unions is that there is no job security for all but the lowest skilled jobs. That $100 per hour cinematographer can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, and the union cannot do anything about it other than collect dues from the new DP.
This makes traditional union solidarity very problematical. Our slogans like "An Injury to One is An Injury to All" cannot apply in IATSE or the other Guilds -- instead a more accurate buzz phrase would be "An Injury to You Is An Opportunity for Me." In a real sense, movie industry "union" members are actually entrepreneurs competing with each other for jobs. Capitalism within capitalism.
I do not find any of this evil, wrong or even unwise. The high pay and great benefits are powerful justifications and having people who work with their hands making upper middle class money is a wonderful exception to the rules that have been stuffed down labor's throat since the Reagan years.
Given this history, I was surprised to see this morning that IATSE just set a strike day for next Monday. This does not mean a strike will happen, but I have to shift my betting line from 1000 to one for no strike to ten to one for no strike. Still very unlikely, but World War I happened against all odds and all common sense.
This has become significant. If a lapdog union like a motion picture production guild's top leadership is playing this kind of brinksmanship like never before in history, something new and different must be going on. Yesterday I related that the specific issues being fought over are kept secret from the IATSE membership. Today's announcement of the strike date did provide some clues:
The outstanding issues remain:
Wages, including living wages
Weekend Rest Periods
Pension hours required for a qualified year
New Media rates, terms and conditions
My Insider take on all of those vaguely defined issues is that there are no Management Takeaways on the list. That is what I expected from the Industry, and just because nothing like that is in today's rev-up email blast, it does not necessarily mean that the Producers are not making serious demands for cuts in pay, benefit and conditions.
Assuming for the moment that there are no big Takeaways being pushed by the Producers, it means that the union leadership is willing to blow up a very long term friendly relationship with this industry in order to get a better contract. That is mind boggling.
If that is what is going on, it will not be due to membership demands -- it will be due to the decisions made by IATSE President Matt Loeb and his closest advisors. I do not find that good or bad in and of itself -- the great union leaders of the past including Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis and Jimmy Hoffa autocratically called strikes and settled contracts as they deemed necessary. No doubt they complied with the procedural niceties, but there was also no doubt about how it worked. When Jimmy says to strike, we strike. When he says go back to work we go back to work.
This rather esoteric account has real significance far beyond IATSE members. A strike will shut down the industry altogether. The last time that happened in this industry was in 2007 when the Writer's Guild went on strike. The final result was the producers tripled and quadrupled down on "Reality" programming and there are far fewer writers working because of it.
There is a real threat of the Producers moving the entire industry off shore. The streaming companies like Apple and Amazon have built up formidable production capacity pretty much over night. It would not tax their resources which are now infinite to start over from scratch in China or Eastern Europe or any combination of studio colonies.
That is why I still believe a strike is unlikely and that Matt Loeb is trying to play as tough a hand as he can before folding. That's probably what the guys who ran Austria thought in August of 1914.
Finally turning to that list of vague "issues" -- the real contention is under the heading of "new media." Which means streaming for the most part, and it is not a subgenre any more. I think it was 2009 when IATSE and the Producers agreed to lower rates and less restrictive contract language for "new media."
I believe that this is the real problem for Loeb and the Industry. Loeb realizes that if the lower rates for streaming continue, it will not be long before every movie job in the world is on the lower rates. That is tantamount to a major concession, although technically it is a request for improvement of current conditions by the union.
If my cynical take is wrong and this does shut down the industry next week, it will be a fascinating story. There will almost certainly be litigation from the start and it will be interesting to see how the National Labor Relations Board deals with it. Also, the companies that will be struck are also major news content providers. How will they cover their own labor dispute? And, most importantly, how will the general public react to all this?
My days as a union big shot ended when I was very young, in the 1980s when I quit and became a renegade who started an independent union (that failed.) I was able to get work as a field representative after 13 years of exile, but I have not been in the Inner Circle of any union in my second career.
Nevertheless my ego and memories of past glory make me imagine that I know what I'm talking about. IATSE should not go on strike. That would almost certainly be a total disaster for the membership. Isolated shut downs of individual movies and TV shows would be very effective while allowing the bulk of the membership to continue to earn a living.
But the major push should be to try to split up the producers. That is how we did it half a century ago. The UAW would pick a target rather than striking the entire industry. In order to put maximum pressure on points of division between the giant producers, the Union should start a boycott of Walt Disney Pictures.
It would be very easy to put thousands of demonstrators in front of Disney Land and Disney World. Just how bad does Disney want to defend Amazon and Apple's business model?