If you work in L.A. in film, tv, radio, music, news, live or “new” media, there’s a very good chance you’re in a union.
That’s true if you’re an actor, camera operator, broadcaster, hair stylist, electrician, costume designer, truck driver, writer, production manager, art director or stunt man or woman.
It’s one of last industries in America with what’s called “union density,” in which collective bargaining determines wage scale, residuals, medical and pension coverage; and sets work rules and jurisdiction (who does what).
Some members earn a fortune, others a decent living, many barely – or don’t – get by.
I can’t think of another field, however, where people will pay to get into the union even before they have a chance to put their talent to work.
And though there’s a mixed historical legacy to the Hollywood labor movement – anti-communism, race and gender discrimination, corruption and complicity – these unions have mostly cleaned house, adapted to changing conditions, and (to varying degrees) have learned to organize new work.
Industry employers include some of the most powerful corporations on the planet. But despite intense fights over nonunion and “runaway” productions, you don’t hear talk about getting rid of the unions.
That’s partly because the unions help manage the “freelance” workforce. It’s also that powerful people in the industry – labor and management – accept the system, flaws and all.
More than 90 percent of private sector American workers are nonunion. For most, the idea of making their job union never crosses their mind.
But here in L.A., many workers know someone who’s “gotten in” to “the business” and one of its unions.
And, over the past 20 years, both “above and below the line” unions have integrated into the region’s labor movement, recognizing the value of solidarity in organizing and contract campaigns, politics and strikes.
It’s too bad most American workers – stuck in low wage jobs with marginal or no benefits – know virtually nothing about how this industry really operates; and – in particular – the role its unions play in sustaining the region’s middle class.