Of Oprah, Conan, Unions, Strikes and Cabbages and Kings

Recently, there was something of a scandal that took place on several blogs.  Accusations were made that Oprah Winfrey, a major supporter of Barack Obama’s candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President, was an anti-union employer.  This was in rather short order, proved untrue, although many people voiced concern that the creative staff of Oprah’s talk show are not members of the Writers Guild of America, as is common for the staffs of most talk shows.

This was of particular concern to me.  I am a member of the WGA, but for a longer time and more importantly, I am a member of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Engineers, or IATSE.  It has been demonstrated by others that Oprah does employ members of the IATSE, but I called the offices of IATSE Local 2, which represents stagehands in Chicago, and IATSE Local 476, which represents studio mechanics there.  Both offices confirmed that Oprah employs members of both unions.

Another major issue regarding the WGA and the strike happened yesterday, as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Conan O’Brian announced that they would resume airing, without writing staffs, this January.

As this is a major issue, for pretty much everyone, since whether or not you are a supporter of unions (and if you read this site, you almost certainly are) you are probably a consumer of television and film.  To do this, I must explain some basic things about unions in my industry, film and television.

The major unions which service my industry are the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the WGA, the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Teamsters, some of whose locals are also part of the IATSE (both unions are in the AFL-CIO).  Other unions, such as the American Society of Cinematographers have smaller involvement.  

First, I need to explain an important distinction.  Every television show employs one or more head writers, who are known as the “showrunner”.  This person is nearly always a member of the WGA, but their contract is not made under the auspices of the WGA.  Showrunners have their contracts through the PGA, since their duties are part of their role as an executive producer.  As such, they are not on strike, nor do they have the freedom of action that striking writers have.  The PGA contract is valid and in force; should Leno or Conan refuse to go on air, they are in violation of their contract.  Nonetheless, many showrunners, perhaps most notably Joel Surnow of “24”, have refused to work while the WGA is on strike.

But I also want to take a moment and talk about the IATSE, who we are, and what our situation is in the strike, and why people on the left need to be concious of the impact it is having on us.  For most of the last four years, I worked for a one-hour television drama.  We employed seven members of the WGA.  We also employed twelve members of the Producers Guild of America, and about twenty members of the Directors Guild of America.  We employed over one hundred members of IATSE, and over thirty Teamsters full-time.

Members of my union are not famous names.  We don’t win Emmys or Oscars.  We earn, by and large, less than $100,000 a year.  We work twelve to eighteen hours a day.   A lot of the people I work with barely see their spouses and children, and often, when we’re working on location, we don’t see them at all.

It is tough getting people to only hire workers from my union.  Lots of people want to work in show business, thinking it glamorous.  They’ll spend a year or two working as a grip or electrician or script supervisor for nothing wages, before learning the truth and moving on.  But it is easy for producers to do this.  Mostly, our value is hidden.  People notice great acting, writing, or direction.  They don’t notice good lighting, costumes, or well-driven equipment trucks.

I’ve worked on over sixty television shows and movies in the past decade, union and non-union jobs.  In his famous book, On Directing, a man I worked for, director Sydney Lumet, makes a joke out of how the Teamsters never took a pay cut to get a worthy movie made, although directors and actors do.  Because no actor or director ever got a big payday out of doing a low-budget prestige movie of course.  And, naturally, no Teamster ever got a raise to work on “Stuart Little 2”.  But the big difference is that there has been one vehicle accident by a Teamster on all the jobs I’ve ever worked.  Non-union drivers beat that count on the first feature I ever worked.

Unions matter, but when it comes to work like the IATSE does, they really matter.  They make sure that working people make a decent wage.  They make sure that genuinely dangerous work is as safe as possible, and in the decade I’ve been in the business, that work has been dangerous enough that two union electricians and one union grip have died on set in electrical accidents.  When I joined the union, it wasn’t just my quality of life that improved, but my safety in my workplace.  Even so, I have stories of filming on soundstages with fake snow that was both flammable and toxic, of overnight shoots doing driving stunts in snow so bad the director went home, of location shoots where we tied in our electric package to an opened fuse box.  The skill of the union workers on those shoots kept us unharmed.

But our work is generally uncelebrated and unvalued.  Good “progressives” don’t concern themselves with the union-busting entailed in watching shows filmed in Canada, or wonder why so many big budget films are being made in “right-to-work” states like Florida.  Hell, public leftists like Susan Sarandon are happy to shoot in Toronto, and come to New York for a day of location shooting.  I should know; I was happy to get the single day her movie “Noel” shot in Manhattan.

Generally speaking, we don’t complain.  We don’t oppose the WGA strike, even though it has led to the layoffs of thousands of IATSE members, who will gain no reward from their potential success.  We don’t begrudge much that while there are daily blog updates about the writers strike, IATSE Local One walked out for two weeks beginning last month and were bereft of outside supporters.  

But I don’t think it is too much to ask that when it comes down to the question of who does and doesn’t support unions, that we judge first and foremost based on who supports the workers at the bottom of the food chain.  Those union grips and electricians and scenics who Oprah hires, they are the ones who need it most.  The union camerapeople and props whose jobs were at stake if Conan refused to go back on the air include many people I know and have worked with for years.  They are union workers honoring union contracts, not scabs.  Their employers are friends of unions.  And understanding that matters.  I enjoy that Democrats want to be the party of union workers.  So be it.  

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    • Jay Elias on December 18, 2007 at 7:42 am
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    …hardly my most well-written work, but timeliness required that I not give this too many drafts.  My apologies to all for the amateur hour.

  1. I have been reading that Conan and Leno, Letterman etc. are going back on sans writers? john Stuart is asking for dispensation from the strike for reasons unfathomable to me. Why?  

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