Monday, November 26, 2007

The Strikes, in my humble opinion

In my last blog, I promised that I would wax philosophic about the strikes that have overtaken my profession- both stage and screen. As you know, I am an actor, and though I am not a series regular or a Broadway star I am definitely seeing the effects of the strikes on my brethren. Everyone seems to have an opinion, but the opinion I hear most often (Brent- you are not the only one) is:

“I can understand the Writer’s Strike, but I am not sure about the IATSE Strike. What gives?”

So, I thought I would focus this blog on the Stagehand’s Strike and give you my thoughts on why we should be supportive.

The media states that the main issue on the table is that of the required amount of crew hired for load-ins. The League says that they are being forced to hire more people than they need for these jobs. This appears to be true, and when you hear the description of the conflict, the League sounds very reasonable. Who, in their right mind, would say that hiring more people than you need is fair? The media has played this out over and over, and the League has been very good at the “woes me” approach.

But let’s clarify things a bit- this is not a new issue on the table. This is (or was) a part of the previous contract that BOTH parties had agreed to and signed. This fact is not being played in the media- the fact that at one time the League said, “Yes, that amount of stagehands required is fine. We concede,” and now they are complaining about how unfair it is. You know, I am all for a group like the League coming to the table and saying, “You know what? We agreed to that but, as it turns out, it’s not such a good idea, and we want to change that aspect of the contract going forward” And when the League did this, Local One said, “Ok. Let’s negotiate. If we take that out of the contract, it will drastically reduced wages and/or benefits for our members. What are you prepared to offer in its place?”

NOTHING. The League has offered nothing. Instead, they whine to the media about how unfair the Stagehands are being. They call is “featherbedding” further degrading the union. Lest I confuse things further, let me put it in terms that most of us can understand (Note: This is an example, and is in no way meant to mirror exactly what has happened between the League and Local One. I don’t know how they negotiated the terms, I only know what terms they agreed upon. Now, for the example...)

Let’s assume you go in for your yearly review with your boss. You are due a 5% raise, but he/she says, “Bob, we cannot offer you a raise this year because we don’t have any more funds to do so. Instead, we are going to allow you to work up to 10 hours per week in overtime, which should give you a good boost each pay period.” You accept, and become accustomed to working 50 hours per week to be able to meet the rising cost of living. Then, let’s assume you go back the following year for your evaluation, and your boss says, “You know what? That was sort of a dumb move on our part. Overtime is costing us way too much, and we don’t even need you for all of those hours. You are no longer allowed to have overtime, and because we are still in financial turmoil, we can only offer you a 2% raise this year. Thanks for being a team player.”

So, let’s get this straight= You working at your same job, but making only 2% more when you should be making 10% more (5% for each year). The concession that the boss made for the lack of raise last year has been yanked off the table AND NOTHING HAS BEEN PUT IN ITS PLACE. The worker has lost 8% of income rightfully owed for a job well done. Is that fair?

Here’s the kicker. The employer in this case is not hurting for cash. The League is seeing record revenues since before 9/11. All Local One is asking for is for something to be put in the place of lost revenues if they lower the minimum of stagehands needed for load-ins. And apparently, the League is not prepared to offer anything- they are more interested in complaining to the public that the union is “featherbedding.”

Ok...

I very rarely get into heated discussions about anything like this. I hate stepping in when both sides are so passionate. There are so many angles to this thing, and unless I am in the talks with both parties there is no way I could appropriately argue one side over another. I am sure I have missed things. Further, I actually have a soft spot in my heart for the corporations and producers who make it possible for me to do what I love.

As we speak (or, as I type and later you read), the two sides are talking and I have heard that the issue of crew numbers at load-in has been resolved. But I still felt compelled to jump in to explain why Local One needs our support. I have read statements released by my union on behalf of Local One. I have read statements released by the League and followed them through the media. The majority of stagehands are not making 6 figure incomes- they are working long, physically exhausting days for a mid level salary, and there is no job security- they always have a chance of losing their job due to shows closing.

Please support Local One. And support the WGA. And when this strike is over, please reward the producers by buying tickets to theater and films, download your TV shows- do everything in your power to show the entertainment industry how much it means to you. I truly believe that no one person is wishing ill will on another, so let’s treat each other with love, respect and honor.

-- End of Soapbox. Back to your regularly scheduled program. --

2 comments:

  1. Interesting thoughts, Erin. However, I'll have to respectfully disagree with your central argument here.

    I agree that once you give a benefit to someone, it is difficult to take it away. However, that does not mean taking a benefit away (especially if that benefit was a mistake in the first place) is wrong.

    At the end of the day, the WGA strike is centered on getting fairly compensated for their work in a new medium. The Local One strike is primarily about holding onto a benefit that they probably never should have gotten in the first place.

    Now I will say this about my perceptions... I am willing to admit that if Local One were doing a better job with the publicity machine, I MIGHT (MIGHT) have a different point of view.

    The WGA has done a brilliant job of using every tool at their disposal to get their message out. On the other front, all I've heard from the Local One camp is a few terse responses (complaints? whines?) about how the Producers are not negotiating in good faith. Nothing at all about the central issues ("it's not about getting paid when they don't need workers, it is about safety and quality in an uncertain and competitive industry"), or why their fight is important to working-class people everywhere ("Automation is hurting our ability to make a decent wage and raise our families in this wonderful-but-expensive cosmopolitan city"), or why this issue is central to the future of quality theatre ("The highly trained and skillful labor force represented by the Local One is a team of artists in their own right, seamlessly blending the arts of acting, audio, lighting, direction, and stagecraft into the magical experience that is Broadway. Lesser trained stagehands would ruin the experience for artist, producer, and audience alike therefore we're WORTH what we're asking").

    All the public hears is the Producer's side (and they're very good at sticking to the script, because it is a simple one: “featherbedding") and many people (myself included) wind up thinking "Really? You want to get paid to come in to work when they don't actually need you? Really?"

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  2. Point taken. I especially agree with you on two points. First, I think that the WGA has a more easily understood argument, one that most people can see makes perfect sense. Add to that- Local One has been AWFUL in getting the word out. They say that this is because they felt that union battles should be behind closed doors, but after a week or so of strike they finally decided to come out and talk to the media. Even then, I got more information about it from my union than from them.

    To confirm- I agree that being paid to work when you are not needed is a problem. I don't know why it was agreed upon before, only that it was. What I don't agree with is the idea of slamming Local One with regard to that benefit when it was agreed upon. At no point has the League said, "Yeah, we agreed but that was then and this is now." This is actually Local One's main sticking point in stepping away from the table for so many days.

    The clarify Local One's position, since they are so bad at doing this themselves, the minimum # of stagehands that were required for load-ins do not always results in having people not working. That only happens in a few instances. The producers only wanted the ability to say, "Well, for this one, we don't need X amount, we need Y amount." Fair enough. However, Local One says that the terms for how to determine whether the producers need X or Y are guided by wanting to save money and NOT by what they actually need, causing there to be safety risks for not having enough people on the job. I don't know to what extent this is true- but I at least wanted to share that viewpoint. As a fellow union member, I am very aware that unions create general contracts that, in the effort to cover everyone, sometimes do not have the individual in mind. I think this may be the case here. It can be a bad part of union bargaining (most of us would prefer the individual approach) but over time unions have developed in this way and I don't see that changing anytime soon.

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