Hollywood’s Back Door

A neighborhood on the eastern edge of the L.A. basin and shorthand for the movie and television industries, Hollywood had its own city charter for fewer than ten years before being annexed by Los Angeles in 1910. By joining L.A., it gained access to the water supply then beginning to flow by aqueduct from the Owens Valley 233 miles to the north.

D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplan filmed there but now, in fact, studios and related businesses are situated throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area with particular concentrations in Culver City, Burbank, the San Fernando Valley and – of course – the part of town known as Hollywood.

Incidentally, West Hollywood is a recently-formed municipality (adjacent to Beverly Hills), which became a separate city with 35,000 residents in 1984. This happened largely though the organizing efforts of an active gay community – including some from the movie business – which gravitated to this “unincorporated area” in the 1930s to 1970s to escape the violently homophobic LAPD.

I wouldn’t appreciate these distinctions if I didn’t live in this region. But there’s a singularly important feature about Hollywood – the industry – that is also usually overlooked. With large-scale domestic manufacturing off-shored and de-unionized, film and television production may now be the most heavily unionized sector in the American economy.

Much of the stuff (content) you watch when you go to the movies, turn on your TV, and – increasingly – access through the internet and your cell phone is union-made.

In my work in the Southern California Labor Movement, I got a look at the complicated web of unions and guilds which represent a mostly freelance workforce of actors, camera operators, make-up artists, writers, prop masters, grips, truck drivers, directors, script supervisors, stunt men and women, studio teachers and nurses.

Though the goal – to represent as many workers in the industry as possible – can be diverted by the ongoing fractious battles within and among the various labor organizations, I believe that the Hollywood guilds and unions do an admirable job of promoting and protecting the material needs of its members while containing and channeling their aspirations and frustrations.

Just consider what they’re up against.

The global corporations which control information, news, media and entertainment are among the most powerful and influential entities on the planet: Disney (ABC), Viacom (Paramount), Time Warner (Warner Bros.), Sony (Columbia Pictures) CBS (Showtime), NBC Universal (A & E) and Murdock’s News Corp. (Fox).

Why don’t these conglomerates follow the path of the rest of the corporate world and simply do away with their pesky American unions? Maybe the arcane jurisdictional structure of the Hollywood guilds are just too entrenched to untangle and discard.  Or that the status quo serves another important strata of the Hollywood “elite” – the directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors and others – who belong to, and help govern, these unions and guilds.

Some would argue that the global capital and technological strategies of these employers will eventually disable the unions anyway. But the fact is that film and television producers continue – at least for now – to cut deals with the collective representatives of their employees. These includes the so called “above the line” unions: The Directors Guild, The Writers Guild and the newly-merged Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists); and the “below the line” unions: The IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employee – the “IA”) the Teamsters and others.

I had no idea when I started in the Labor Movement in the 1980s that I would get my foot in the (back) door of “the business” by working with some of the entertainment industry unions and guilds.

Though I barely knew which end of the camera to look through, I was hired-on for some interesting projects by IA Local 600 – the Cinematographers Guild. This below-the-line union includes extraordinarily talented, technically brilliant and enterprising members of the camera crew who work under the Director of Photography. The DP is responsible for how the scene is lit and looks, works closely with the Director, ranks high in the industry hierarchy and can earn quite a bit of money per project.

When three regional camera locals were consolidated in the mid-1990s, I wrote and edited mail-outs to members about the merger and, among other things, helped launch a national newsletter and membership directory.

The Local 600 merger was in line with a larger trend within the IA to consolidate regional locals and various crafts. While this was taking place, the IA moved smartly to capture new work by tailoring contracts to the growing cable market, low-budget film production and – later – reality TV. Combining aggressive organizing “on the set” with hard-nosed negotiations with producers, the IA – despite its very parochial structure rooted in craft distinctions – pushed its way forward as an important force in the industry.

With few exceptions, the IATSE doesn’t run hiring halls. Getting a job – whether you’re a sound engineer, hair stylist, costumer or key grip – depends on your reputation for reliability, knowledge of the job, resourcefulness, creativity, and networking skills.

Hourly scale for many jobs on a pre, post and production crew average about $40 an hour and often include overtime and double-time pay.

Entertainment industry craft workers live in middle class neighborhoods all over Southern California. A ten or twenty year run of $85,000 – or more – gets you a decent house on a nice block.  But these camera assistants, make-up artists, set painters, script supervisors and others can regularly face dry periods in which they’re worried about losing their health benefits (not enough work-hours to qualify) – or worse – their homes.

You’re part of the rapidly-shrinking, high-wage working-class: competitive, high-pressure and subject to global economic cycles and an all-powerful industry. You tolerate intense and perpetual career anxiety in return for a premium job with intermittent high pay and a chance at a secure retirement.

Knitting this freelance universe together are the unions. Certainly some complain that their reps don’t do enough to protect them from exploitive producers or that the contracts give the bosses too much of the pie. Though serious problems do hamper this system of representation, most members clearly recognize that without a union they’d be fodder for industry abuse.

In fact, the global media giants who run these industries are always wagging their finger at the unions to remind them how eager other regions are for the work.

Nothing worries L.A.-based entertainment industry guilds more than “runaway production.” U.S. cities and states and foreign nations lure productions with tax incentives and state-of-the-art sound stages. Profit-driven capital, always seeking to reduce labor costs, pits region against region and nation against nation.

City and Southern California film promotion officials have tried to keep the work in town by, among other things, making permits for location shoots easier and calming neighborhood residents who feel invaded by film crews (in other parts of the country, a film crew on your street is an exciting occasion).

That has worked to an extent, particularly when coupled with the advantages of easy access to L.A.’s large talent pool and existing infrastructure such as visual effects and editing facilities. But the question remains: can this region compete head-on with increasingly generous incentives from North Carolina to New Zealand (complicated by the fact that location shooting in various regions in the U.S. and Canada may be covered under a union contract).

Location shooting has largely replaced the studio back lots. Seventy-five years ago, huge studios, covering thousands of acres of prime Southern California land, employed thousands of full-time workers in industrial movie-making factories. It was L.A.’s equivalent (along with the now substantially diminished aircraft and aerospace businesses) to Pittsburgh’s steel mills and Detroit’s auto plants.  The 20th Century Fox lot near Rancho Park was once several times its current size but sold much of its land to high-rise developers in what is now Century City.

Nevertheless, L.A. remains ground zero for this industry and its unionized writers, artisans and actors who give this region a creative ambiance. Talk to a costume designer or a camera operator to get a sense of what really happens on the set. You’ll find that the view from the Hollywood working class is quite distinct from the manufactured “celebrity culture,” used to sell the entertainment “product.”

Over the years when I tell friends outside the region about my high regard for the Hollywood workforce, I sometimes hear disparaging remarks about the crappy movies, worthless network one-hour episodic dramas, and laugh-track-laced, inane sitcoms. Reminds me of how much of the blue-collar, assembly-line workforce in the 60s and 70s was ridiculed for manufacturing worthless consumer goods or – worse – contributing to the “war machine.”

Keep in mind that it’s the corporate owners and producers who pander to and manipulate popular taste and appeal to the crass instincts of the entertainment consumer. The role of working-class institutions is to ensure that those who do the work get their share of the rewards.

Can you really criticize an actor who gets a central role in a McDonald’s commercial (which, if she’s lucky and the spot gets widely used, could trigger residuals which cover half of her mortgage for the next two years)?

Working with AFTRA – I helped build ties with political and labor leaders and raised money for an annual awards event – widened my view of working actors and other talented professionals in that union including broadcast journalists, radio hosts, recording musicians, sportscasters, singers and more.

I was impressed by the dedication of the staff and the considerable time and energy put in – unpaid – by elected leaders from the ranks.  The smaller of the two Hollywood actor unions, AFTRA positioned itself for the recent merger with SAG by aggressively securing contracts with TV producers after the failure of the previous merger vote eight years earlier.

Much is made of the contentious and sometimes vicious battles within and among Hollywood unions.  The Writers Guild strike of 2007, for example (which some say helped establish a more equitable residuals formula), was criticized by many in the IA for causing an overall drop in industry jobs.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I prefer to look at the “big picture” regarding these conflicts.  As I’ve watched union power diminish and disappear across the country, the infighting in Hollywood can be construed as a sign of life.  While you can argue that brutal battles inside the Labor Movement simply serve the employer class, the approval by union members of the actors’ merger shows a willingness to adapt and fight on.

Finally, there’s been a significant shift, I think, in how entertainment industry performers, artisans and skilled technicians self-identify. The threat of out-sourcing, job-eliminating technologies, and corporate consolidation has propelled many members to understand that – no matter how big they are – they’re not immune to being crushed by the system; that even in their relatively privileged positions, they have a great deal in common with the rest of the region’s working-class.

Hollywood unions in fact have become a much more significant and visible part of the L.A. Labor Movement.  Compared to 25 years ago, you’ll now find film and television union leaders and activists side-by-side at solidarity rallies with registered nurses, construction workers, fire fighters, janitors, supermarket clerks, flight attendants, housekeepers and public school teachers.

Above and below the line, unionized performers, grips, gaffers, keys and “best boys” – including many A-list actors, directors and writers – recognize the value and necessity of keeping this industry “union”.  Macro economic trends and the sheer size and power of media conglomerates will exert ongoing pressure to weaken the collective nature of this workforce.  But, for now at least, Hollywood holds the brand as America’s highest-profile union town.


This article originally appeared on LaborLou.