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How to think about what unions do.
The Writers Guild strike is on. Hollywood is closed for business. It’s a big fucking deal. The picket line yesterday in New York was giddy, full of friends you hadn’t seen in a while and reporters asking everyone questions. The longer the strike goes, the harder those picketing days will be for all the screenwriters. (I am a WGAE member, but none of us journalists are actually on strike. We’re just out there for moral support.) Here is the upcoming picket line schedule, and here is a fund that you can donate to to support striking film and TV writers.
Before I was a member of the WGAE, I kind of despised Hollywood in a generic sense, for being a gigantic machine for the production of cultural imperialism and the mass worship of wealth. And in a generic sense I still believe that is the case! But in a more specific and frankly interesting sense, I have come to understand that Hollywood is the single best example of mature labor power in America. How many industries in the US in 2023 are unionized virtually top to bottom? In how many industries are the major employers forced to deal with a small number of powerful unions and set industrial standards, without being able to simply pack up and flee to a non-union state? Hollywood is it. (We’re ignoring a little nuance here but that’s okay.) The big entertainment unions—the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, DGA, etc—have collectively produced an industry that is a relatively good place to work for everyone, compared to the average American industry. That is not because Hollywood makes a lot of money; lots of industries make a lot of money and pay the vast majority of their employees poorly. It is because unions organized all the labor in the industry and forced employers to negotiate with the unions and have thereby managed to spread the wealth produced by the industry around much more broadly than is normal in this country.
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You can read a point-by-point list of what the WGA is asking for in a contract here. One broad way to think about, it though, is that the industry has changed—much of it has moved from movie theaters and ad-supported TV networks, to streaming platforms that make money off subscriptions—and the writers need to change the way they’re compensated, in order to reflect the new reality of the business. That’s it! Businesses themselves do this all the time. They move to where the money is, and adapt in order to get it, the same way organisms move and adapt to new food sources. But workers are usually left behind in this equation. If an industry shifts towards requiring new skills, the workers with the old skills are cut. If an industry is able to cut its existing workers’ compensation by tying it to revenue sources that are drying up, businesses love it! They seek to maintain the maximum ability to adapt for themselves, while treating their work force as a disposable natural resource to be mined, used up, and then abandoned, as business dictates.
Unions, though, can give the work force the same ability to adapt to changing industries that companies already have. You can think of this as one of the most basic economic functions of a union. Instead of allowing employers say, “The industry is changing, and we’re leaving you unlucky bastards behind. Bye!” a union can, through its collective power, say, “No. You’re taking us with you.” Unions make sure that the people get to adapt to changing industries, and not just the investors and the business owners. They create the ability to keep existing human beings matched with their careers as those careers change. The reason why union members have more wealth than non-union members is not just that they earn higher wages—it’s that they have a far greater ability to build coherent, long-term careers, as opposed to a constant treadmill of unstable short-term gigs. In non-union industries, businesses can just act like ships cutting through a desperate sea of workers, scooping up whoever they want and then tossing them overboard as soon as it’s convenient. In a union industry, though, the companies are forced to deal with the labor force as an equal. The workers have their own damn boat.
Unions just make sure that people! Are! Not! Disposable! They’re good. I mean, unions do other stuff too, like give out t-shirts, and give you a democratic forum for passionate arguments with your most despised coworkers about the tiniest of issues. But you can also think of them as simple machines that keep you matched to your career of choice, rather than forcing you to always be swimming in the rough seas, begging passing companies for a life preserver.
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I had a long feature published in In These Times this week about reform efforts underway at the UFCW, one of the biggest unions in America. It is a union with enormous potential to help literally millions of essential workers, and a broken system of leadership that prevents it from doing so. Think this is some esoteric union inside baseball that doesn’t affect you? WRONG. It’s about the most likely path to pulling America out of its descent into inequality, and the obstacles stopping that from happening. We’ll talk about this more one day. Oh yes.
Support the WGA strike. Support any and every strike in your area. Be like a Teamster. If you want to figure out how to unionize your job, ask me.