THR’s naive view of labor

The Hollywood Reporter can usually be counted on for well researched, if too short, stories that provide good insight into labor developments in Hollywood. They tend to take a less provocative approach than their major competitor and seem, in my view, to be somewhat more independent. But that all somehow got lost in this story on the emerging conflict between SAG and AFTRA.

The argument in the story is that AFTRA is proposing to the AFL-CIO that it get its own seat on the AFL executive council outside of the 4 A’s, through which AFTRA, SAG and Equity have for many years shared a seat on the EC. The story lead says: “It likely will be more than a month before AFTRA knows whether AFL-CIO leaders will smile upon its request for a direct link to the labor mothership.” Gimme a break: the possibility of an AFL affiliate like AFTRA making such a proposal public as they did after their recent Philadelphia convention and then several months later failing to have it rubber stamped by the EC of the AFL is NIL, ZERO, NADA!

The EC is a bureaucratic entity that, frankly, (and believe me I say this as a long time member and friend of labor who often advises AFL and other unions on a range of financial and legal issues) more often resembles the old Kremlin Politburo than it does a democratic assembly. Debate is rare – and the chance that a major and visible affiliate like AFTRA is going to be embarassed by the EC rejecting AFTRA’s request is non-existent. The decision has already been made and SAG is, unfortunately, trying to close the barn door after the train has left the station (to mix a metaphor).

Why is the AFL’s EC willing to do this? Because Aftra, Equity and the IA are looking to break the hold that the Membership First party has on SAG! And why are they doing that? Because they do not think MF has a strategy that can succeed in the EMI sector. The AFL wants to see these unions merge into a larger overall organization representing the EMI sector. That is the goal, I believe – tho not made explicit, of the formation of the ICC in the DPE last year. Since a straight up merger between AFTRA and SAG has been blocked by the grassroots efforts of Membership First, the AFL is trying to crack this nut in another way.

So what should happen here? Well, the challenge for SAG and in particular for its leading party*, Membership First, is to have a strategy to lead the Guild (and the other unions in this sector) through the VERY challenging and complex times ahead in this industry. This is an industry that is heavily unionized (80%!) and is growing in revenue and production size and employment and consumers on a global basis – in other words, unlike the crisis ridden auto industry, there is a real opportunity here for organized labor.

So this reminds one of the old political adage: power is lying in the streets waiting for someone to pick it up – the question is which actor in the game is going to seize the opportunity: the MF party? Aftra and the AFL? Or, worst of all, the studios? At the moment, the studios alone have made clear their strategy – deep six the entire residual structure and prevent any transparency and accountability for the super profits to be made in the new digital environment. The studios are in the press regularly making their arguments about the tough times they say they face (for example, see the recent flak piece that the New York Times ran on the Writers Guild negotiations). They are filling the vacuum while labor battles over bureaucratic structures! Indulge me while I repeat my favorite metaphor of the moment: this is like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

*For newbies to this site – SAG unlike most unions has internal political parties that put up slates of candidates for union positions. MF is one that is based in Hollywood; another is United Screen Actors Nationwide, that is largely based in New York.

AFTRA causing SAG labor pains with potential move