Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Medium Is The Message

Many in the business world or right wing nut jobs (not that they are mutually exclusive) would have you believe that unions are an anachronism of a past Industrial Age. Hate to have to tell you this but collective bargaining and action are alive, well and seemingly getting stronger.

First there was the recent unpleasantness on Broadway. The "New Economy" and its adoration of the investor met an old-line craft union. Generations of relationships with the direct employers and the people who make them their money were tossed aside in pursuit of short term profit by, in essence, the renters of the employers property. The Producers resented the symbiotic relationship required of everyone in the communal art form that is theatre. Wharton School of Business doesn’t have a theatre department, which would have taught the students that Gordon Gecko was a fictional character in an art form designed to create illusions, the movies. Or perhaps it’s a knee jerk reaction to the liberal part of liberal arts. But I digress.

For those “New Economy” folks, what has happened in Times Square this week could be even more foreboding than an old union winning a strike against concessions. The creative types that Viacom exploits to sell its teen oriented products got tired of being punching bags for the bottom line and took to the streets in collective action. The use and abuse of those employees defined as freelancers, part time, independent contractors or long-term temps is an aspect of labor relations that the “New Media” relies on. Workers are viewed as a drag on profits and a managerial headache. Not only are office workers not viewed as a valued employee or even as a human but rather a disposable component of a multinational whole.

On Monday Viacom and MTV employees demonstrated a new willingness to take on the boss when Viacom bean counters, chasing the corporate mantra of getting more for less, starting another round of swapping around benefit plans in order to get less for less. The result would be that these permatemps would have to wait even longer for benefits. Oh, and another new paper employer, Cast and Crew that would keep the workers at a legal arms length. This kind of employer is a service common in the entertainment business where events are short term affairs and the contractor allows the service to do the back office tax and payroll duties. Large corporations, however, use them as a way to avoid paying benefits and reduce their own back office staff. Contract Out Everything 101 is a freshman requirement at Wharton.

While the anger is real and the needs great, the lack of several generations of protest and organizing became evident at MTV. This generation may have music videos, the Internet and You Tube; the loss of schooling in the history of social upheaval became evident, as did the fear that controls the work place. Where the stagehands refused to talk to the press it was because of the their personal knowledge of how the press twists the truth to fit a preconceived message that the front office wants to hear (every go to a show in preview and then read the review?). The writers and animators and assistants where not giving their names out of fear of retribution. “You want benefits and job security? I can hire the next college kid that walks in the door who would love to work here. What are you some kind of troublemaker?” So they demonstrated on their lunch hour.

Freelancers Walk Out at MTV Networks

But it worked. They attracted a get deal of attention; keep the pressure up and Viacom caved.

MTV to Let Freelancers Stay on Its Insurance

Anyone from the Sixties could have told them they would. They would know that it is people on the streets that get attention and not this load that was issued by Viacom.

"As you know, we’ve been holding information sessions over the past several days to discuss our freelance and temporary employee benefits. We’ve had many insightful conversations and heard a number of your specific concerns.

As a result of the input you’ve given to us directly through the sessions and your managers, we want to announce the following changes:"

Information sessions, my ass. It was your employment practices in the spotlight that did it. Left to your own devices nothing would have changed.

With entertainment being the second largest export today and the inability of the owners to ship out the culture to Asia, the “New Media” worker today have much more untapped power than they are aware of. It’s not the bosses who allow workers to organize into a unit; it’s the workers decision. They may be digital mills rather than steel mills or cotton mills or paper mills but to office workers they are mills nonetheless. And where there’s exploitation, there’s going to be unions.
Freelancers Union

Monday, December 10, 2007


I've been holding off posting anything about the strike and the contract until it was ratified. There is a superstition in the business that you don't talk about a contract until it is signed because you could jinx the deal. As with any superstition it is more about fear than reality.

Having gone over the changes there's positives and negatives that, unless you're really in the business and understand how we work, are probably going to be to arcane to go into. There are changes to work rules that at this point don't seem particularly practical but the League fought for them and got them. Changes to lunch hours, changes to rehearsal requirements, show staffing, load-in staffing and more. Some of what has been codified has been in practice for many years and the new crop of Producers were unaware of what they could do. There was chronic problem during the negotiations of the League not understanding technology and terminology. The role of the flyman in particular was difficult for them to understand. After several explanations of how shows physically load-in, the League's negotiators still kept trying to remove the role of the flyman altogether. Several times they wanted the flyman only come for the electrics prehang and do the points later, which is a little like wanting to have the drywall hung before the carpenters have put up the studs.

For me I think that the biggest change occurred when the local theatrical community stood together to protect itself. This clearly defined to me the need for members to have a strong involvement of their Local, not just in the negotiating process but also in the activities of the Local on a day-to-day basis. It is the members who really understand how their work happens and should control the voice at the table if progressive improvements and adaptive changes need to be made. Union administration needs to be from the bottom up if members are going to be protected on the job. The further an officer gets from the load-in door, the more their focus is going to be on getting the deal done so he can move on to the next task/contract. We in Local One were very fortunate to have officers that have day-to-day contact with members and venues and value their input. This wasn’t always true in our Local but that changed. Nor can I say that is true the further up the food chain you go. It’s important that the employers understand what happens to their employees and this can only be done when we negotiate for “our” terms and “our” conditions. Outsiders most often just muddy the waters or worse, have their own agendas.
So if you’re a member of a union, get involved. Join a committee, be it a negotiating, safety, pension or any of the others. Understand how the process works. If you want good people to run you Local, start by running it yourself. Bring the needs of the members to the union and not the needs of the union to the members.

We did it and it works.