The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers…Shakespeare said that

You can measure the difficulties of the labor movement by the number of lawyers in the room.  The more there are the deeper the problems.  

I started out in the labor movement fighting against the idea that lawyers should have a central role in decision-making in the labor movement.  As a rank and file shop steward and local union officer I recall often having to fight against the idea that the lawyers on the union staff knew more about the union and its potential than the union’s own members. 

Now I am a lawyer, I train future lawyers and I often advise labor union members and officers. But my early conviction about the inverse relationship between the presence of lawyers and the effectiveness of the labor movement has not wavered.

Thus, it is disheartening that in three of our most important and visibly symbolic unions, the United Auto Workers, the Screen Actors Guild and the Service Employees International Union, lawyers are taking an abnormally large role.  And while there is less public discussion I have a feeling that the role of lawyers is also looming large in the battles between the once allied unions, UNITE and HERE.

At the UAW, the rank and file workforce is now at the mercy of bankruptcy lawyers because the labor movement is unwilling to take a forceful stand on behalf of industrial working class America.  Despite the opportunity to lead the way to restructure our national transportation industry by reorganizing the Big Three into a new Public Trust Transportation Company, the UAW seems more interested in going down with the ship.

Over at the Screen Actors Guild, a well-intentioned opposition group led by New York based actors and a group called Unite for Strength in LA sent two lawyers into negotiations today with the AFL-CIO over its contentious relationship with its sister union AFTRA.  These groups hold the balance of power in SAG these days having pushed aside a damagingly dogmatic faction called Membership First. In any case, apparently also AFTRA sent two lawyers to the meeting and the AFL-CIO sent a lawyer and…well, one can only imagine what these people were thinking without a single actual rank and file actor to be seen.  

The tools being used by SAG’s new leaders are as arbitrary and bureaucratic as those used by the old Membership First leadership. They included an ultra vires attempt by the SAG National Board to muzzle their own national President (granted, this particular President has very little to say that is worth listening to).  Of course, the President decided to sue instead of fight politically and there were more lawyers!

If that is the way the union is being run nowadays no wonder the entertainment industry treats labor negotiations like they are a side show hardly worthy of prime time.

SEIU is in the view of some the one shining light in American labor as it has expanded its membership by hundreds of thousands over the last decade or so under the leadership of Andy Stern.  But very few of those new members are the result of actual organizing but rather acquisitions modeled, consciously, on corporate raiders.  For a while the illusion could be maintained but in the last few months it broke apart as the California based United Health Workers led by a Stern loyalist bolted and formed a new independent union after Ray Marshall (an economist!) backed yet another bureaucratic effort by Stern to crush the vibrant UHW.  The UHW was acquired in a sense by SEIU in a deal brokered with then-California governor Grey Davis. It was a top down attempt at organizing but the rank and file have woken up and have their own ideas about how to run their union.

Finally, in the least well-known battles inside labor these days, the once amalgamated UNITE and HERE are splitting apart at the seams. (Pun intended – hey, I realize I am no Shakespeare.)  UNITE led by Bruce Raynor who at one point was a key organizer of southern textile workers seems content to try to run to the side of Andy Stern who is backing them against HERE.  HERE is led by John Wilhelm, a popular former Yale University union leader. 

Wilhelm has attempted to push Raynor out who in turn says he is pushing Wilhelm out.  At the heart of the mix is the Amalgamated Bank based in New York and historically linked to one of UNITE’s predecessor unions, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, with $11 billion in assets under management, most of it union pension funds.  The Amalgamated has been an important player in many battles for progressive corporate reforms including being the first lead plaintiff in the shareholders lawsuit against Enron.  God only knows how many lawyers are caught up in this showdown.

In the very same scene where Shakespeare, sardonically, suggested that we have had enough with lawyers, he wrote:

“…and yet it is said, labor in thy vocation; which is as much to say as, let the magistrates be laboring men; and therefore should we be magistrates.”

If not magistrates, then at least it is “laboring men [and women]” who should run their own unions. I said that.

(Apologies to Bob Dylan.)

4 thoughts on “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers…Shakespeare said that”

  1. I can understand the temptation to think that lawyers and other trained professionals can be a substitute for an active and well informed union membership. The problem is that over time we have forgotten how the labor movement established a beach head in the modern economy – it was only because of independent rank and file activity. And that is as true of SAG, which was born in the midst of a wave of such activity in the 30s, as it is of the Steelworkers or Auto Workers or Teamsters.

    SAG and to a certain extent the other guilds have been cycling between a certain type of narrow union militancy and a variation of business unionism for quite some time.

    When Doug Allen first surfaced as the leading candidate at the WGA there were some who backed him because they thought he could strike fear into the Producers. At the last minute the Guild decided instead to stick with David Young. And then SAG snagged Allen with the same idea – that he could some how frighten the Producers. That’s what I mean about a narrow approach to militancy. It is echoed now by the idea of some that just shouting loud enough will somehow change the impact of the digital revolution.

    In reaction, of course, others counsel caution and moderation and so a David White looks like just the right approach. Certainly after the mindless militancy of the Allen/Alan period White and McGuire seem a breath of fresh air. And I don’t doubt for a minute that their combined knowledge and experience is of great value to the Guild. But they thought they could substitute for the membership and they let the Board hand them unilateral power over the negotiations and the Guild. And then the Board doubled down and muzzled Alan Rosenberg.

    White and McGuire then added to the problems by not doing anything to increase Guild leverage prior to restarting negotiations. They had been told the AMPTP would want to extend contract dates but somehow were caught off guard when the Producers made it clear they were serious. To beat that back they had to give up on something costly – force majeur dollars – because they had not added to their leverage when they came back to the table.

    Now they have to hire a PR firm to sell the deal to a sceptical, exhausted and likely apathetic membership. And guess what, in about a year the Guild has to revv up to start all over again!

    Neither side in the faction war has acquitted themselves well here. The Guild has the same deal now that it could have had in June or April or February for that matter. And there is nothing indicating to me that this cycle will not repeat itself.

    And putting more lawyers on staff won’t help. The only way out is a much more engaged membership that knows what its leadership is up to and that can be part of a debate to develop new ideas to unify the Guild and work more effectively with the rest of entertainment labor. A start as I have said several times would be a real board of directors not the political circus that the National and divisional boards have turned into. Right now it is not clear to me that either side is committed to that kind of democracy and transparency and constructive growth.

  2. I stand corrected on confusing Roberta Reardon and Kim Hedgpeth. All that really means is that having a lawyer as NED is a sign of the times.

    I think you were engaging in deliberately misleading hyperbole with your statement that SAG “sent two lawyers into negotiations today with the AFL-CIO” and that “apparently also AFTRA sent two lawyers to the meeting.” The point I was making remains valid: The fact that the NEDs of both unions happen to be lawyers does not mean that the unions simply “sent lawyers” to do the unions’ work. They sent their NEDs, who were accompanied by counsel. These NEDs were there as NEDs. The fact that the NEDs are lawyers is coincidental.

    You seem to be implying that the unions should have sent people other than their NEDs to this significant meeting. That’s ridiculous. As I said in the original message, a well-intentioned amateur in these circumstances could just make things worse. And the process of trying to determined which well-intentioned amateur(s) to send would create a political morass of significant proportions.

    Maybe you’re just lamenting the fact that in today’s environment, union Executive Directors often have law degrees, and that there’s something wrong with having a lawyer as an NED. I can think of worse credentials to have, however. Doug Allen’s lack of a law degree certainly did not do SAG any favors.


  3. Ha, you have fallen for the canard that Shakespeare liked lawyers. I doubt it.

    Roberta Reardon is not the NED of AFTRA, Kim Roberts Hedgpeth is and she went to a little known law school somewhere in Washington, D.C. run by the same Jesuits as my law school, if I am not mistaken.

    And, really, drop the idea that I am somehow a candidate – still three years on – for NED of SAG. If I was it would not be as a lawyer but as a trade unionist which is something entirely different.

    But on to the serious work. The non disparagement agreement was a bureaucratic trick that actually hindered the opposition to MF since as AFTRA members they were caught up in it. It is a symptom of the problem – that there is a legal solution to a political problem. There ain’t.

    As for a raiding violation – what raiding violation? Do you mean of the AFL-CIO constitution? You’re kidding, right? That piece of paper is has more holes in it than a US flag from the Revolutionary War era…there hasn’t been any respect for it practically since it was written in 1955! In any case, the Hollywood Division of SAG has no power to bind SAG or the 4A’s and only SAG or the 4A could in any sense violate the AFL constitution.

    The point here is that the members of the unions should be much more involved in the governance of these unions, not less. That requires more transparency not less and lawyers reduce transparency. What SAG has to do is create a real board of directors with no alternates elected each year directly by the members. That board has to be serious about its work and it has to find ways to bring the rank and file membership into debate and decision making. That debate has to be about the economic and structural changes in the industry and ways to increase actor/performer power. That will likely lead to ideas about mergers, etc. but those can only follow genuine debate and democratic decisions.

    Unfortunately, neither side seems committed to this approach and I predict that this situation will continue to deteriorate.

  4. Well, actually, Dick the Butcher said that, and it was his suggested first step in essentially overthrowing society and creating anarchy. The real message from Shakespeare is that lawyers are an important piece of glue holding civilized society together.

    SAG’s then-leadership — Rosenberg and Allen — chose to enter into the non-disparagement agreement brokered and administered by the AFL-CIO because they had so obviously blundered in driving AFTRA away earlier in the year. That was a looming political disaster with the Commercials contract coming up for negotiation, and the TV-Theatrical contract still at stalemate. Rosenberg and Allen looked like they had let things go completely out of control. Therefore, it was a calculated political decision on their part to enter into the NDA, designed to blunt the consequences of their ineptness and foolishness during 2007 and early 2008.

    But it was neither AFTRA’s nor the AFL-CIO’s duty (or desire) to create some kind of window-dressing to salvage the tattered reputations and track record of Rosenberg and Allen. Both of these organizations insisted that this agreement had to be meaningful, with teeth and enforcement provisions, before they would play. So that’s what was hammered out.

    And now there’s an apparent violation of the non-raiding provision, with the top officials in the Hollywood Division taking formal action to set up a committee to investigate, well, raiding. Would you have AFTRA ignore this?

    Apparently the Membership First contingent believes the NDA was just window dressing, and that it is not a matter of concern.

    So, when an apparent violation arose, of course the lawyers got involved. That’s their job. They’re the kind of people you want involved with something like this, because they are experienced in gathering facts and analyzing them in light of contractual provisions and any applicable law. A well-intentioned amateur, no matter how earnest, would really serve no useful purpose.

    So, according to published reports, the National Executive Directors of both SAG and AFTRA, together with their counsel, held a session with the impartial umpire appointed under the AFL-CIO agreement. That seems perfectly appropriate to me. And it wasn’t just lawyers; Roberta Reardon is not a lawyer, as far as I know, and while David White is, he was there as NED, not a counsel. (Maybe what you’re saying is that lawyers should never serve as union NEDs, which cuts you out of the running as well. But that’s an entirely different discussion.)

    In short, I disagree with the sentiment of this article. SAG would benefit right now if its lawyers had a little more influence, rather than being ignored and told that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Where the lawyers hurt is when people like Alan Rosenberg hire them to sue the Guild and its directors.


Comments are closed.