Can Unions Save the Arts and Other 'Creative' Professions?
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Some say Hollywood’s unusually liberal culture give unions power. But ask a striking graduate student at NYU or Yale, or the public radio staff whose unions have been broken or deflected, about how unsupportive liberal cultures can be.
Hollywood executives often support liberal social issues after hours, they don’t typically let politics get in the way of their earnings or their dealings with talent. And Hollywood films have hardly been consistently pro-union. “On the Waterfront” is a great film, but it also takes a cartoonish view of union leadership. Similarly, for decades gangster films – including the Godfather movies – portrayed unions as handmaids to the mob. For every “Matewan” – made outside the Hollywood studio system, incidentally — there is enough material like “Blue Collar” for an anti-labor film festival. “Remember that movie, ‘The Replacements’?” Frank asks of a 2000 film starring Keanu Reeves. “It’s about a scab football team and how awesome they are.”
The recent film “Won’t Back Down “shows Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as plucky heroines who stand up to a reactionary school system – weighed down by an ingrown teachers union – to save a Benetton ad’s array of kids. It was funded in part by plutocrat Philip Anschutz, who also supported the anti-teachers union documentary “Waiting for Superman.” It’s only a matter of time before the Koch brothers make one of their own.
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Rodman sees unions as more important than ever, and the only institution making the middle-class writer and the working actor possible at a time of historic income disparities. “As the conglomerates change, as entertainment becomes a smaller percentage of [multinational’s] earnings, we’ll see if that changes.”
It may be that the crisis in capitalism –- a system with which unions have a fraught but also symbiotic relationship – means unions can’t operate the way they used to. Some union advocates see the 21st century economy as a return to the smoky early years of industrialism, before unions made themselves felt — the Information Age version of sweatshops and endless work weeks.
Technological shifts, in some ways, are making things harder. As the blue-collar employees who traditionally made newspaper production possible are replaced by automation, unions lose members and their strength dwindles further: The process is cumulative. “A union derives its power from organized action, with a strike as the big stick,” Martelle says. “If you can limp along putting out a paper with managers, then you can’t use that stick. They can always fill a paper with bullshit. But if you can’t put it on a truck, you’re in trouble.”
That was the old model. “If you look at the stories from the last few days – corporate profits up, with no hiring coming – you see the problem,” he says. “If people aren’t working, there’s nothing unions can do.”
Still, newspapers with strong guilds – the New York Times and Washington Post – have seen fewer layoffs and less brutal severances, on the whole, than those without. And the business was ailing in 2007, as well, but the lack of union protection at the Tribune’s two largest newsrooms, L.A. and Chicago, is part of what made Zell’s dirty deal – build on employee pension plans — possible.
There is certainly no shortage of problems – new and old — that an artists’ collective of some kind could address. In his insightful recent book, “ How Music Works,” David Byrne talks about the difficulty of getting musicians paid for songs on Pandora, Spotify and other services. “Spotify has reached agreements with the major labels, just as MTV did before them,” he writes. “And just as before, the artist, who should be entitled to a share of that equity, is missing from the equation. Maybe this time around that will get fixed, and if it does then streaming will be an additional source of income for artists – especially if the artists hold on to the rights to their songwriting and recordings.” Without a powerful musicians guild, it’s hard to imagine this resolving any better today than it did in the MTV ‘80s.