Last week there were two major blows in the entertainment industry. On Monday, the Writer’s Guild went on strike and later in the week, IASTE Local One, the Broadway stagehands union, also went on strike.
Broadway has been dark for several days now, and programs which rely on fresh daily writing are in endless re-runs.
Unions have played a crucial role in our country’s history. They have been behind such things as the minimum wage, child labor prohibitions, and safety initiatives in the workplace. They have been making a safe and fair workplace for many years. They have given the worker a voice, a choice, and a powerful bargaining vehicle against unfair managers and business owners.
I am a member of Actors’ Equity, the union for stage actors and stage managers, and we have been instructed to stand in “solidarity” (whatever that means) with our sister unions. But for me personally, I see my union membership in the entertainment industry as a necessary evil rather than some great thing. Without it I can’t work in the theatres I want to work in, and because of it I can’t work in the theatres I can get a job in. My union has few benefits for me as a non NYC resident.
Union stage managers have a very strange obligation. We are directly responsible for the actors in the company, but are also a member of their union. Our job was to see to it that our union protections were not infringed by the producer, but yet we are also the go between for the producer and the company. As a result, stage mangers are constantly barraged with conflicts of interest. Do they do what the actors want, the union wants, or what the producer wants. Where should their primary loyalty lie?
To give you a taste, actors work 8 of 10, meaning they can work a total of 8 hours a day in a single 10 hour period (you have to have a 2 hour break sometime). They also get 5 minute breaks every 55 minutes or 10 minute breaks every 1:20. Actors are prohibited (by most contracts) from moving scenery, having photos or video taken of them (at any time), and from essentially doing anything but showing up, putting on their costume, and performing.
Many actors are excited to join the union because they open themselves up to the world of these union entitlements. It is very difficult for management and producers when actors play the “union” card, stating they couldn’t or wouldn’t do this or that or the other just to fit their personal convenience.
In stark contrast, a few weeks ago at my current job we had some major customer issues crop up that had to be fixed immediately. Our management called an immediate halt to all development (I’m a developer) and re-tasked every developer to be a tester to help reveal and diagnose the issues.
Had I been in some developer’s union, there would have been no end to the whining and complaining at such a re-tasking. Imagine informing the actors that they would have to put down their scripts and begin painting scenery. There would be mass upheaval. Instead, we all banded together, hunkered down as a team, accomplished our goals, fixed the customer issues, and returned to our development roles a week later. It was tiring, unpleasant work, but it had to be done.
Our entertainment unions have turned from being protectors to babysitters. They create mountains of job duplication and extra expense for producers, while also creating entitlement programs and workplace restrictions that often defy logic, just to pander to a few vocal members.
While these current strikes have some interesting and important negotiation sticking points, especially the “new media” precedent that will be set, I think unions should not have the power to hold entire industries hostage.