Residual Anger | The Nation


Residual Anger

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Marc Cooper is an emeritus member of WGA and a member of the Los Angeles local of AFTRA.

Below-the-Line Resentment

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Solidarity with other industry union members might also be shaky in the event of a writers and actors strike. About 100,000 "below the line" workers--photographers, makeup artists, painters, carpenters, sound and light technicians, gaffers and grips--are represented in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. And IATSE president Tommy Short rocked Hollywood in late January when he told Variety that the issues of the WGA and SAG were "unclear" to him. "If anybody thinks I'm going to support an institution that is trying to obtain unobtainable proposals in a collective bargaining process..." Short said. "I don't mind getting on a bus, but not on a bus without a driver that's going over a cliff."

While it must be said that Short comes from the most conservative wing of organized labor and that his own sharply undemocratic union hasn't struck since the 1930s, when Al Capone took it over, it's also true that he gave voice to a rather common sentiment within his ranks. "What Short said probably represents the feeling of about 80 percent of our membership," says one leftist IATSE official, the leader of a Hollywood local. "We've got no confidence in the guild leadership, especially SAG. These guys just don't know what they're doing. You don't go on strike for six months to get what you could have gotten in the first week."

Some guild strategists know very well that more work has to be put into building real alliances with below-the-line workers. "We have to jettison the mentality that makes us think we are so different from any other working people," says AFTRA VP Connolly. "We have to realize that we now work for corporations that produce sewage and produce movies. We have to reach out to the rest of labor and stress how alike we are instead of how unique we are."

Pressure in that direction was applied by the national AFL-CIO in mid-February when federation leaders John Sweeney and Richard Trumka hosted a two-hour Hollywood union summit at the Biltmore Hotel. Participants in that meeting say that, behind closed doors, the national labor officials let it be known that they expected to have a strong role in supporting and advising on the upcoming negotiations and in any strike movement that might come out of it. "The AFL felt there was just too much at stake to leave it in the hands of inexperienced leadership," says a Hollywood union official who attended the meeting. "The federation was brought in late during the commercial strike, yet their expertise was crucial in winning it. This time they want in early."

It's unlikely that the writers will return to the table before April. There's some speculation they may wait longer and even work for two months without a contract beyond the May 1 deadline in order to gain leverage as the actors' contract comes due on July 1. SAG and AFTRA have yet to begin formal talks.

The next few months, then, could be crucial to defining labor's position and power in Hollywood for decades to come. To the most conscious among Hollywood's unionists this is the moment to maximize member training and preparation, to stitch together interunion alliances, to deploy an effective strategic contract campaign and, most of all, to hone the guilds into a powerful, modern arm of the labor movement able to confront some of the mightiest corporations now operating in the global market. "There's way too much talk right now about a strike," says a thirty-year veteran guild organizer. "And not nearly enough, if any, talk about a real fight. And that's the fight we now have to wage."

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