Can't We Just Get Along?

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

Earlier this month, members of a union crashed an event where the head of a rival union was speaking. A mini-melee ensued, and a bunch of people were hurt including a 68-year old woman who was pushed to the ground. Luckily, these two unions are trying to organize California nurses, so there were plenty of band-aids on hand.

What does this have to do with the business, you ask? It's a little context for the dust-up between the two actors' unions. If you'll recall, after a spate of name-calling and press leaks, SAG and AFTRA decided to negotiate new contracts individually for the first time in 27 years. In the hermetically sealed world of Hollywood, their weakened bargaining position seemed to be the result of nothing more than actors' flakiness. But, if nurses are throwing the elderly to the ground, maybe this labor thing isn't so simple.

According to Lois Gray, professor emeritus at Cornell's Labor Relations School and an expert on Hollywood labor, show business guilds behave pretty much like most unions in terms of the inevitable power struggles, ideological differences and jurisdictional battles. Not only that, they face certain challenges that other unions don't.

Lois explained that SAG, AFTRA, the Writers' Guild and the Directors' Guild are actually a strange hybrid of unions and professional associations. This makes their mission a bit schizophrenic. In particular, unions typically welcome all comers since more members and more dues make for a stronger union. Professional organizations, on the other hand, typically create barriers to entry to their field to ensure that standards – and compensation – remain high.

The creative guilds bargain collectively on behalf of their members like unions. But like professional organizations, they bestow upon their members a kind of legitimacy that trade unions do not. This is especially important in the insecure world of Hollywood. Auto workers may be proud of their union, but in a town where everyone's an actor, a union card says "hey! I'm for real" – even if the totality of your paid acting career to date was a 30-second Drano commercial.

Another major difference between Hollywood guilds and "regular" unions is that "regular" workers are usually working. Compare that to SAG or AFTRA, where the majority of the membership is unemployed at any one time. And there can be a huge income disparity between the working and the work-nots. The highest paid members of a trade union don't make all that much more than the lowest paid. But in Hollywood, the difference can be huge. A Tom Hanks or a Julia Roberts makes millions; but the guy in the Drano commercial is probably still pulling shifts as a barista at the local Starbucks.

Finally, every member of the UAW still very much needs his union; if Ford threatens to close the plant or slash health and pension, it's the union that will stand up for its members. In Hollywood, the highest paid actors don't need the union at all. Those that remain involved in the union do it mostly because they can remember when they were living on a diet of microwave burritos, even though their union contracts don't affect them in the least. I'm pretty sure Tom Hanks won't be working for SAG minimum anytime soon.

All of these issues – the schizophrenic nature of their mission, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, and let's not forget the passionate nature of artists – create an internal friction that makes SAG and AFTRA hard to lead and hard to join together. But the same reasons that make them different from other unions, makes their solidarity that much more important.

We'll be looking more at why SAG and AFTRA can't get along next Monday on The Business. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's The Business Brief.




Matt Holzman