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Can Unions Save the Arts and Other 'Creative' Professions?

Today, musicians work without record labels, journalists work as freelancers and book publishing is collapsing. Unions might take some risk and sting out of the creative destruction.

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Unions, though, typically require concentrated centers of population for some of their collective action to work, and in a creative class decentralized by a half century of suburbanization and several decades of the Internet, that’s harder and harder to find.

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Despite all the difficulties and challenges faced by unions, there’s also one recent major success by a creative class union: The  Hollywood strike of 2007 and 2008 led by the Writers Guild of America.

The strike was launched over writers’ frustration at getting left behind by the shift to digital media. “We had been sucker-punched on a lot of previous technological advances,” says screenwriter Howard Rodman, now a WGA vice president, who was active in the strike, offering a long list going back to videocassettes and cable. With the Internet developing as a way of distributing films and television, the union decided to plant its flag in cyberspace, rather than wish they had a decade later. “We knew it we didn’t get it in that negotiation,” he says, “we never would.”

Despite the decline in union membership, workers still strike, and technological changes are sometimes the cause. Recently a number of symphony orchestras have fought with management, and found themselves on the losing end: The Minnesota Orchestra, asked to take a large pay cut by management, has been locked out, with no medical benefits, since October. These stories are depressingly familiar.

But here’s what happened in Hollywood: The writers struck for 100 days … and in the end got most of what they wanted. So, what happened?

Part of the writers’ success came because the Hollywood unions – including the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, the Teamsters and various unions of “below the line” workers – have deep roots in the movie business. (By contrast, the effects houses – one of which, Rhythm & Hues,  filed for Chapter 11 right before winning an Oscar for Life of Pi — are not unionized.) But previous Hollywood strikes have fizzled, like the strike of 1988 over video royalties.

The ’07-’08 campaign was also better run than most. Support by high-profile stars – Steve Carell calling in sick to “The Office” – helped, as did enlisting the showrunners who head a television program and often come out of the writers’ ranks. “These were people who made a lot of money for the studios, and who were used to working at the highest levels of the networks and studios,” says Rodman. “It wasn’t the suits versus the barbarians.”

During a period that cut into many writers’ savings, the union offered loans to some, which kept screenwriters’ homes from being taken or their medical coverage from being cancelled. (No strike is an unalloyed victory: The studios, who employ the writers, lost hundreds of millions it could have earned. The Los Angeles area, including it florists, caterers and other support workers, lost even more – something the messaging firm hired by studio management made clear as it worked to demonize the striking writers.)

Part of the reason Hollywood strikes can work is that the unions protect their position: Anyone who symbolically crossed the picket line can never be a member. “You can never come back – you are exiled,” Rodman says. That doesn’t mean that some writers (including some who penned soap-opera scripts) didn’t keep working. But there were not enough scabs to undercut the union.

“At the end of the day, the studios would rather deal with a writer than want to be in the cesspool trying to determine credit,” he says. “They don’t want to give the unions everything they wanted, but to borrow a title, it’s better than dealing with 10,000 maniacs.”

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