Last Halloween, I corralled my son into making a blatantly left-wing statement. We went out trick-or-treating dressed as hobos carrying homemade signs that read respectively, “Will Work for Healthcare Benefits” and “Brother Can you Spare a Million?” Oh, how our neighbors laughed and showered us with candy, which I judiciously parceled out over the entire year like any mom concerned with limiting her kid’s intake of high-fructose corn syrup.
When I asked my son what he wanted to be for Halloween this year, with no hesitation he replied, “Aren’t you in strike? We’ll both be hobos, of course!”
“It’s on strike,” I replied and added, “not yet, but we’re probably headed there.”
I didn’t say this to my son, but I think it bears noting that the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) talks, which will be followed shortly by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) negotiations, not to mention the Directors Guild of America (DGA) discussions, are taking place in the shadow of the landmark United Auto Workers (UAW) labor negotiations.
Ironically, when I interviewed former Labor Secretary Robert Reich for my documentary, Fired and he stated, “Every industry is becoming more and more like show business,” it was well over a year before the UAW talks–which moved working on the assembly line a big step closer to working in show business–were even to begin.
Now more than ever, we writers/actors and factory workers have much more in common than you might think. Auto workers have long been thought of as emblematic of the American middle class, so it might surprise people to know that the members of the guilds in Hollywood face much the same economic picture as the rest of the country’s middle-income earners, with only the top 5 percent earning the majority of the money and the rest of the membership working (those who can find work!) at scale rates trying to maintain a middle-class existence while employers are trying to keep costs down in order to compete in the global marketplace. Recent studies estimate that the minimum income a family of four in California needs to cover superfluous items like rent, car payments and food is $72,000, which for many can only be reached by holding on to on our union-negotiated pay and residual rates.
Furthermore, with UAW members’ health and pension benefits now the union’s responsibility, it’s also no stretch to imagine auto workers’ futures holding what we in showbiz have come to live with: unexpected annual increases in deductibles and higher earnings requirements in order to receive benefits, all of which make planning family budgets unpredictable at best.
In light of Chrysler’s new two-tiered pay system, I, for one, will not be surprised to see a new paradigm, not unlike how actors and writers work, in which once-tenured high-wage workers freelance at lower-paying positions: an auto worker who is no longer tied to Chrysler or GM will be an independent contractor freelancing with whichever automaker has a job opening.
Can you imagine this scenario: auto workers accepting a job on spec? The pitch from the automaker: “We’re going to build a great new car, and if you’ll work for a deferred payment, we’ll share the profits on the back end!” Sounds crazy, but that’s exactly what actors and writers agree to on a regular basis.
We’ll see what happens, but sadly, I can vividly recall the last WGA strike. I had moved to Los Angeles the month before it started, and as the months dragged on, I had to take a job as the hostess of a night club frequented by a strikingly gaunt but surprisingly energetic Eurotrashy clientele. Patrons regularly attempted to tip me in cocaine. “Cash not candy!” became my catch phrase.
Which brings me to Halloween. I think I’ll just rewrite my sign from last year. It will read: “Will Work!” And my son’s signage? I’ll suggest: “Cash Not Candy!” OK, more likely he’ll choose “Brother, Can You Spare a Pokemon?” After all, he’s just a 9-year-old kid. And honestly, I think I might let him eat all the candy he wants. I’ll have bigger things on my mind tonight.