Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘contract’

40,000 AT&T Workers Begin 3-Day Strike

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Around 40,000 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) at AT&T walked off their jobs Friday, for a three-day strike, as pressure continues to mount on the corporation to settle fair contracts.

In California and Nevada, around 17,000 AT&T workers who provide phone, landline and cable services have been working without a contract for more than a year. Last year, they voted to authorize a strike with more than 95 percent support. And in February, an estimated 21,000 AT&T Mobility workers in 36 states voted to strike as well, with 93 percent in favor.

Workers had issued an ultimatum, giving company executives until 3 p.m. ET on Friday to present serious proposals. They didn’t; the workers walked.

It isn’t the first strike at AT&T. Some 17,000 workers in California and Nevada walked off the job in late March to protest company changes in their working conditions in violation of federal law. After a one-day strike, AT&T agreed not to require technicians to perform work assignments outside of their expertise. Nevertheless, the biggest issues for workers remained unresolved.

AT&T has proposed to cut sick time and force long-time workers to pay hundreds of dollars more for basic healthcare, according to CWA. At a huge April rally in Silicon Valley, CWA District 9 vice president Tom Runnion fumed, “The CEO of AT&T just got a raise and now makes over $12,000 an hour. And he doesn’t want to give us a raise. He wants to sabotage our healthcare then wants us to pay more for it. Enough is enough!”

AT&T is the largest telecommunications company in the country with $164 billion in sales and 135 million wireless customers nationwide. It has eliminated 12,000 call center jobs in the United States since 2011, representing more than 30 percent of its call center employees, and closed more than 30 call centers. Meanwhile, the company has outsourced the operation of more than 60 percent of its wireless retail stores to operators who pay much less than the union wage, according to CWA.

The relocation of jobs to call centers in Mexico, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and other countries is one of the main issues in negotiations. A recent CWA report charges that in the Dominican Republic, for instance, where it uses subcontractors, wages are $2.13-$2.77/hour. Workers have been trying to organize a union there and accuse management of firing union leaders and making threats, accusations and intimidating workers. Several members of Congress sent a letter to President Donald Trump this year demanding that he help protect and bring call center jobs back to the United States.

“We’ve been bargaining with AT&T for over a year,” CWA president Chris Shelton told the rally in Silicon Valley. “They can easily afford to do what people want and instead are continuing to send jobs overseas.”

According to Dennis Trainor, vice president of CWA District 1, “AT&T is underestimating the deep frustration wireless retail, call center and field workers are feeling right now with its decisions to squeeze workers and customers, especially as the company just reported more than $13 billion in annual profits.”

“The clock is ticking for AT&T to make good on their promise to preserve family-supporting jobs for more than 40,000 workers,” Trainor said before the start of the strike. “We have made every effort to bargain in good faith with AT&T, but have only been met with delays and excuses. Now, AT&T is facing the possibility of closed stores for the first time ever. Our demands are clear and have been for months: fair contract or strike.”

Last year, CWA members at Verizon were on strike for 49 days, finally gaining a contract with greater job protections and winning 1,300 new call center jobs. Since December, AT&T workers have picketed retail stores in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, San Diego and other cities, hung banners on freeway overpasses, organized rallies and marches and confronted the corporation at its annual meeting in Dallas.

“Americans are fed up with giant corporations like AT&T that make record profits but ask workers to do more with less and choose to offshore and outsource jobs,” said Nicole Popis, an AT&T wireless call center worker in Illinois. “I’ve watched our staff shrink from 200 employees down to 130. I’m a single mother and my son is about to graduate. I voted yes to authorize a strike because I’m willing to do whatever it takes to show AT&T we’re serious.”

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 19, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Bacon is a writer, photographer and former union organizer. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Policy Drives Mexican Migration (2013)Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). His website is at dbacon.igc.org.

Bosses Must Keep Up Dues Checkoff after Contract Expires, Says Labor Board

Friday, October 16th, 2015

in these timesIn a landmark decision called Lincoln Lutheran, the National Labor Relations Board has overruled 53 years of pro-employer precedent. By a 3-2 vote, the Board said that like most other contract terms, dues checkoff must be continued after contract expiration unless the parties agree on a new contract or the employer declares impasse and implements its last best offer.

Dues checkoff must be maintained even if workers are conducting an aggressive inside campaign.

The NLRB ruled in favor of dues checkoff in 2012, but the Supreme Court invalidated the decision, along with many others, when it declared that two Board members had been illegally appointed by President Obama. The matter had to be heard again once new members were properly appointed.

Lincoln Lutheran removes a major impediment to working-without-a-contract campaigns, where the union uses on-the-job actions to pressure an employer for a contract, while avoiding the risks of permanent replacement and decertification associated with a strike.

Under the old rules, an employer could cease transmitting union dues as soon as the contract expired and the union called its first demonstration or informational picket line. The prospect of losing all its income was a strong disincentive for many unions.

The working-without-a-contract strategy is being pursued right now by the Communications Workers and Electrical Workers (IBEW) in their contract fight with Verizon, and by the CWA in its battle with AT&T in the Southeast (see page 12). The Steelworkers are also working without a contract at Arcelor Mittal and U.S. Steel.

With a no-strike clause no longer around its neck, a union that stays on the job after the contract expires can call short-term warning or grievance strikes to throw the employer and its customers off balance. And the union can time a protracted strike for the moment it will be most damaging.

Moreover, no longer constrained by a management-rights clause, the union can demand bargaining on day-to-day decision making, and can file streams of unfair labor practice charges.

What’s ahead

As the Republican dissenters in Lincoln Lutheran ruefully warned, employers are not likely to take this decision lying down. They can be expected to come to future negotiations with artfully designed language insuring that dues checkoff will die with the contract. Sticking to their position, they will include the demand in their final offer, to be implemented after declaring impasse.

Unions will have to find ways to overcome these stratagems—for example, stretching out meetings and filing multiple information requests to prevent the employer from lawfully declaring impasse. Time will tell who will prevail in the long run.

But for now, unions involved in inside campaigns can relish the discomfort employers will undoubtedly experience when sending in their weekly dues checks.

This blog originally appeared on Public Justice on October 14, 2014. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Authors: Robert Schwartz is a union-side labor lawyer and author.

Adjuncts Win Union Contract at Maryland Institute College of Art

Friday, October 9th, 2015

Bruce VailThe national movement to unionize part-time faculty at U.S. colleges and universities has secured an initial beachhead in the Baltimore area with ratification of a first contract between Service Employees International Union Local 500 and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Voting on the ratification concluded in mid-September and a formal signing ceremony for the pact is set for October 8, labor representatives report.

It’s the first union contract for any bargaining unit of part-time faculty, or adjuncts, in the city’s greater metropolitan area, where thousands of such workers are employed at about a dozen similar private and public educational institutions. The overwhelming ratification vote of 91-7 came following a protracted contract negotiation initiated when a union organizing drive won collective bargaining rights for about 300 MICA adjuncts in April of last year.

But the strong vote in favor of ratification probably came from union members “more excited about finally having a contract than the specific terms of the contract itself,” comments Joshua Smith, a MICA adjunct who served on the union negotiating committee. The three-year contract falls short of member expectations in several key areas, he concedes. Yet many members also recognize that settling on a first contract is a “vital step forward” to realizing the union’s long-term goals.

A desire for an across-the-board wage increase was frustrated, for example, by MICA administrators who would only agree to an indirect approach to a modest raise in pay, Smith says. The new contract adapts an existing pay scale—ranging from a low of $3,329 for a three-credit course to a high of $5,040—to allow adjuncts to more easily advance up the scale, while also providing an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), Smith says.

“The pathway to advancement is easier, plus the COLA, so there is something for almost all the members. But the base is still too low and [the union has] to attack the pay inequity between veteran, part-time and full-time faculty” in the future, says Smith. (The full text of the agreement is available online at the SEIU Local 500 web site.)

A statement sent out under the name of MICA President Sammy Hoi glossed over the pay issue and stressed the non-economic features of the contract:

The agreement covers a wide range of subjects including changes to compensation, creating a professional development fund, establishing standards governing the appointment and re-appointment of part-time faculty, and creating an evaluation process that will foster continued excellence in teaching. …

As an important step in promoting sustainability in higher education, this contract reflects MICA’s commitment to leadership and to the part-time faculty in the MICA community. MICA and Local 500 look forward to continuing to work together in the implementation of this agreement and building a strong, professional relationship that will advance the interests of our students and the MICA community as a whole.

Debra Rubino, MICA’s Vice President of Startegic Communications adds: “President Hoi, along with all of the senior administration, are very satisfied with this agreement.”

Hoi’s emphasis on the inclusion of adjuncts in the broader academic community is a reflection of union demands that part-timers be treated as professionals, Smith adds, and has been a consistent theme of adjunct organizing throughout the country. Locally, the demand is a feature of an ongoing organizing campaign at nearby Goucher College, where part-time faculty are awaiting a National Labor Relations Board decision on the outcome of a closely contested union election there in late 2014.

Assumedly addressing the Goucher union fight, the MICA organizing committee said in a statement, “This MICA contract should cause other institutions of higher education in Baltimore to think twice about their opposition to collective bargaining process. The time for formal negotiations on the status of adjuncts at MICA was long overdue, and, now that they have taken place, the college is better for it. … A strong, active Part Time Faculty Union is a platform for involvement in the future of MICA and the education of its students. Any administration should welcome that.”

The statement can also be read as a message to other colleges and universities in the region. Stirrings of union support for an adjuncts union are evident at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, and also at the University of Baltimore, Smith says. Furthermore, a coalition of unions including the Maryland State Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and SEIU Local 500 is agitating for legislation to ease unionization of the state’s community college system.

Finalizing a first contract at MICA is important to these efforts as well as to the MICA instructors themselves, Smith concludes, by demonstrating that adjuncts can establish new collective bargaining units despite official opposition. Baltimore’s culture of treating adjuncts as second-class academic citizens needs to come to an end, he says, and the MICA contract is a hopeful sign that the end is coming in to sight.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 5, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

This week in the war on workers: UAW workers reject contract with Chrysler

Sunday, October 4th, 2015
Laura ClawsonAfter years of concessions, auto workers at Fiat Chrysler have had enough. They’ve voted to reject a contract recommended by UAW leadership that would have offered raises, but left in place the tier system in which some workers make significantly more than others. The Detroit Free Press reports that this is the first time since 1982 that UAW workers have voted down a national agreement. It wasn’t close either: 65 percent of workers voted against the contract. Alexandra Bradbury writes at Labor Notes that:

Probably the top reason workers voted no was indignation that the agreement broke the union’s longstanding promise to cap the lower-paid tier at 25 percent of the workforce this fall. Since 45 percent of Chrysler workers are in Tier 2, many expected a raise to $28 an hour. With no cap, it’s only a matter of time before there’s no first tier left.

Amplifying the anger were Chrysler’s high profits and the revelation that the company plans to move car production to Mexico.

UAW president Dennis Williams said the union would seek further discussion with Chrysler.

This blog was originally posted on Daily Kos on October 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Laura Clawson. Laura has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006  and Labor editor since 2011.

Save the Seventh

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Susan HarleyThe Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved …”

Even though we are all granted the right to a trial by jury in the U.S. Constitution, Big Banks and corporations regularly use fine print in contracts to trick consumers out of their right to a day in court. Forced arbitration means that if consumers are ripped off or otherwise harmed, they must use private arbitration proceedings to air their grievances.

If you’re already angry about forced arbitration and you want to do something to get these predatory terms out of financial products, skip to the end of this post for ways to get involved.

There’s plenty to be mad about. These expensive arbitration “tribunals” have no judge or jury. They are overseen by paid arbitration providers who are selected by the companies. Arbitration firms have a very good reason to guarantee repeat business for themselves by finding in favor of the corporations over the consumers. The findings of arbitration decisions are not public and the appeals process is very limited. Most likely, you will also be required to go to arbitration in another state!

If consumers were interested in choosing arbitration, they would enter into the decision after some harm has come to them. It would need to be an informed decision where they did so with a full understanding of the consequences of their choice to not go to court.

But that’s not how we’re all roped into signing (or even clicking) away our rights. It has been proven that consumers rarely understand that their contracts contain arbitration clauses and have little idea of the repercussions of having their complaints heard in a non-court venue.

And, even if you understood they were there and knew it meant you were losing your right to go to court, it’s not like your average adult can simply opt out of getting a checking account, taking out that student loan, or financing that car.

What about if those very same companies with arbitration clauses were systematically ripping off you and your fellow consumers – but only in small dollar amounts? The only way it makes sense for consumers to bring those cases is through class actions where those who have been harmed can band together to make a complaint about a company’s action. Makes sense, right? Except most arbitration clauses contain class action bans, which were unfortunately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. Now Big Banks basically have free rein to steal a few dollars here and there from all of their customers without worry of being held accountable.

Congress saw the unfairness of forced arbitration clauses and prohibited them in certain industries and in housing-lending contracts via the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank). Dodd-Frank tasked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren — that was created by the same legislation with studying arbitration in all consumer financial contracts and determining whether consumers would be better served by prohibiting the practice.

The CFPB’s study is finally complete. It shows that consumers have little idea about arbitration clauses and how the fine print strips them of their constitutional right to their day in court. In fact, three out of four consumers surveyed as part of the study did not know whether they had an arbitration clause in their credit card agreements. And, of those who did have arbitration clauses, only seven percent understood that meant they had given up their right to their day in court.

Now it’s time for the public to get involved. Every person who’s even been steaming mad at Wall Street’s sticking it to the little guy and thinking they can weasel out of being held accountable needs to get involved.

Urge the CFPB to stand up to Big Banks and do the right thing. It’s certain that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its corporate cronies will do everything it can to keep unfair forced arbitration in consumer financial products, so we need as many people as possible to join this fight. There’s a whole toolbox of tactics we’d love to get you involved with, and it only depends on how much time you have to invest in protecting consumers.

Only have a second or two to take an online action? Easy!

What about a minute to share this social media meme? Great! While you’re at it, Tweet with the hashtags #CFPB and #ForcedArbitration.

If you have a lot to say on the subject and want to get your community fired up too, write a letter to the editor. We have ideas on what to say! There are even more ways to get involved. If you want to learn more, email: action@citizen.org.

You could be part of scoring a major win for our country by reclaiming the Seventh Amendment. Americans, take back your day in court!

About the Author: Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Residents Win 15% Salary Increase after Public Campaign

Saturday, June 15th, 2013

The resident physicians at Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield, CA have ratified a new two-year contract that provides a 15 percent, across-the-board salary increase, a one-time travel reimbursement of up to $1,500 for an education conference, and quarterly labor-management meetings.

The contract was settled days after the residents held a letter-writing campaign and rally urging Kern County officials to come to the bargaining table and negotiate a fair agreement.

“Bakersfield deserves well-rounded physicians,” said Dr. Sarah Assem, an internal medicine resident and CIR delegate. “They deserve for the competitive residents to come to KMC and then to stay here and open up their own primary care practices, because in the end, that’s the goal of having a residency.”

Over 80 people, the majority interns and residents, attended the June 4 rally and press conference in front of the hospital. The campaign garnered media attention after CIR leaders presented research showing that Kern County residents were the lowest paid in the country, with interns starting at $40,500 a year.

The nurses’ union, SEIU 521, also put pressure on the county to negotiate decent wages for the residents.

“When I heard that our physicians-in-training are the lowest paid in the nation, I was appalled,” wrote Carmen Morales, a nurse practitioner and Vice President of Local 521, in an op-ed. “I value their strong work ethic and consider them to be steadfast teammates at KMC. Kern County faces a physician shortage, and residency serves as the best recruiting tool for bringing high caliber doctors to the region.”

The new contract takes effect July 1, 2013.

This article was originally printed on SEIU on June 14, 2o13.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Heather Appel is the Communications Director at CIR/SEIU Healthcare.

Minnesota Janitors and Security Officers Set Strike Vote, Say Corporate Elite Has Power to Unlock Better Future

Friday, January 25th, 2013

seiu-org-logoFor janitors and security officers in Minneapolis, members of SEIU Local 26, a raise would help bring them above the poverty line. It would allow them to  pay for basic necessities, including groceries, school, rent or mortgage. And they’re  prepared to fight for themselves, their fellow workers, and their families in order to achieve those things.

As the next step in their fight for a living wage and and affordable health care, members of Local 26 held  a rally in downtown Minneapolis yesterday after contract bargaining came to a standstill. At the rally a strike petition was circulated, with a strike vote is scheduled for February 9.

“It’s not fair that while our productivity is going up, our wages are not keeping pace,” said Margarita Del Angel, a janitor who spoke at the rally. “We are being forced to do more and more work for the same amount, so our employers can cut back on workers and save money at our expense. And now, they are demanding to pay us even less. They want to cut wages for more than half of us…They want to lock us into poverty, while continuing to grow richer at our expense.”

For the first time ever, more than 6,000 janitors and security officers in the Twin Cities and suburbs are negotiating new contracts simultaneously. In 2008, a new contract was negotiated for 1,000 security officers after they struck in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. In 2006 and 2009,  janitors voted to authorize strikes, but both were narrowly averted.

local 126.png

The average worker in Local 26 earns $20,503 annually. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,050.

Members of SEIU Local 26 clean and protect some of the Twin Cities’ largest office buildings that house some of the wealthiest corporations in the country, including Target, US Bank, and Wells Fargo. The contracts expired December 31, but after months of negotiations, employers are still unwilling to bargain in good faith.

“We’ve tried to bargain in good faith,” said Demetruis Moore, a member of the bargaining committee who’s worked as a security officer for more than five years. “But it’s clear they have no intention of doing so. Either come to the table and bargain in good faith, or we’re done. We’ll see you in the streets.”
If Local 26 members vote on February 9 to authorize a strike, the bargaining committees would then decide when and if a strike was necessary, as well as set a date for a strike. If a strike were to happen, it would be one of the largest strikes to ever happen in downtown Minneapolis.

“While we are proposing fair raises to move workers forward, our employers are demanding cuts. This would move workers backwards,” said Moore, the member of the bargaining committee. “The corporate elite in this country have the power to help unlock a better future for all of Minnesota. It’s time they do that.”

This post was originally posted on SEIU on January 25, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Mariah Quinn is a writer for SEIU.

Flight Attendants Push for Equal Benefits for Domestic Partners

Monday, January 14th, 2013
Kenneth Quinnell

Kenneth Quinnell

Flight attendants who work for Spirit Airlines filed a lawsuit against the airline for reneging on a contractual commitment to provide equal benefits for all employees by forcing employees who want health care coverage for their domestic partners into a lower-quality health care plan than the plan covering other employees. The flight attendants, members of the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), said that management is using procedural loopholes to avoid providing equal benefits. Todd St. Pierre, the AFA-CWA president at Spirit, said:

We are outraged that management refuses to treat the families of their employees equally. At a time when equality issues have sparked a social awakening across our nation, management’s trampling on employees’ rights is deplorable. Their discriminatory behavior must be rectified immediately. Flight Attendants worked hard to ensure that these rights were included in our legally binding contract so that we could provide health care security for our loved ones. Shame on Spirit management for their blatant disregard for equality and for turning their backs on their obligations.

In a related story, aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co. said that despite the passage of a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Washington State—where Boeing has significant operations—they were not required to provide same-sex couples with benefits, including pensions. While Boeing publicly says they are evaluating what the referendum means to them, SPEEA/IFPTE Local 2001 executive director Ray Goforth said that Boeing officials explicitly told him that the benefits would not be extended to same-sex couples.

Alaska Airlines flight attendants, also members of AFA-CWA, issued a statement supporting members of SPEEA at Boeing in their fight for equal rights. Alaska AFA-CWA President Jeffrey Peterson said:

“AFA has a longstanding commitment to equality regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression which is why Alaska Flight Attendants stand in solidarity with our aviation colleagues at Boeing in their struggle for equal rights. With an all-Boeing fleet of aircraft, Alaska Flight Attendants depend on the professionalism and dedication of SPEEA members each and every day.

Voters in nine states across the nation have instructed their elected representatives to address marriage equality issues. Recently in Washington, all couples regardless of gender finally have the opportunity to legally marry. Yet, Boeing is refusing to recognize married couples equally.

We are all partners in the success of the aviation industry and we call on Boeing executives to provide equal benefits to all couples legally married under state law.”

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on January 14, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  He is the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

3,000 Workers at 14 Industrial Laundry Sites Get Wage Gains, Keep Free Health Insurance

Friday, December 7th, 2012

Industrial laundry workers, who wash linen for New York’s hotels, hospitals and restaurants, voted overwhelmingly to ratify a new master contract between 14 laundries in the New York Metro area and the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU.

The contract includes significant wage gains for laundry workers, a majority of which are African-American women and Latina immigrants.  New York Metro area laundry workers will also continue to have free employer paid individual medical, dental and vision insurance and a pension. Laundry workers will be part of one multi-employer contract, which sets the standards for a majority of laundries in the New York Metro area.

“This contract makes real improvements for laundry workers and their families and continues to raise standards for the industry,” Wilfredo Larancuent, Regional Manager of the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU, told the bargaining committee comprised of drivers and production workers from area laundries, “You can feel proud of what we have accomplished.”

Elected worker representatives from the laundries bargained the contract with employer representatives for over a month.  A strike vote was held at the laundries, but the contract was settled prior to the strike deadline. Workers and the employers were able to come to an agreement and both were satisfied with the contract.

The Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU represents nearly 70% of all industrial laundry workers in the New York Metro area.  In August, laundry workers at JVK Operations in Long Island voted to join the Laundry, Distribution and Food Service Joint Board, Workers United/SEIU and the Joint Board continues to organize the remaining laundries in the New York Metro area in order to bring all laundry workers up to the standards of their membership.

This article was originally published on SEIU on December 7, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Service Employees International Union is an organization of 2.1 million members united by the belief in the dignity and worth of workers and the services they provide and dedicated to improving the lives of workers and their families and creating a more just and humane society.

A Bizarre Labor Arrangement

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Going all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, the “Us vs. Them” dynamic that defines labor-management relations has remained remarkably intact. And that’s a good thing. Yes, the relationship is tense and adversarial, and, yes, it hasn’t always been productive, and, yes, there have been occasions where debilitating strikes and even violence have resulted, but because each side has its own agenda, conflict should be expected.

Lined up on one side are the men and women who do the actual work, who toil long, tedious hours for a defined wage, and lined up on the other are employers who, while grudgingly recognizing the necessity of workers, are committed to not paying them one nickel more than is absolutely necessary. It’s an economic law. You charge for your product all that the market will bear, and you pay your employees as little as you can get away with.

By and large, this primitive relationship has resulted in an equilibrium. Adhering to the principle that there is “strength in numbers,” workers have joined together to form labor unions, and embracing the time-honored belief that “money talks,” business groups have bribed Congress to pass legislation that crippled the labor movement. By “equilibrium” we’re not suggesting there is anything remotely resembling “fairness,” only that there is a stasis of sorts.

Which brings us to the film industry. To be a movie actor, you must belong to SAG (Screen Actors Guild), the actors’ union. Similarly, Hollywood’s bosses are represented by the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers). In many ways, contract negotiations between the Guild and the Alliance are not unlike negotiations between any other parties; it could be the UAW going up against Chrysler, the IAM taking on Boeing, or the Teamsters bargaining with UPS.

[It should be noted that SAG is now known as SAG-AFTRA, having recently voted to merge with AFTRA—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists—but that’s a whole other messy issue, which we won’t get into here.]

But there is one very disturbing way in which SAG’s negotiations with the producers doesn’t resemble those of other unions, and that difference involves a profound conflict of interest. Incredibly, some of the most prominent and influential members of SAG are also producers. It’s true. While these “movie stars” are dues-paying union members who, nominally, do battle with the producers, they themselves are also big-time producers.

You can imagine where their interests lie when it comes to mundane (but critically important) rank-and-file issues such as residuals, new technology, and health insurance premiums. As important as these issues are to 95-percent of working actors, they mean next to nothing to these moguls. Indeed, as producers with an eye on the bottom-line, they’re interested in keeping their costs down, and if this results in their fellow actors receiving a smaller slice of the pie, so be it.

During SAG’s 2009 contract negotiations, some of these actor-producers actually took out advertisements in trade papers urging the membership not to do anything so dumb or reckless as to vote to authorize a strike, presumably because they didn’t want to see actors (whom they themselves employ) rock the boat by interfering with future profits. Of course, a public display of union dissension like this is going to badly undercut any talk of solidarity, which it did.

An accomplished actor friend of mine (he’s brave, so he probably wouldn’t mind me mentioning his name, but I shall preserve his anonymity) has recently (in late September) filed charges with the NLRB against these actor-producers. I read his affidavit. It was well-written and compelling. The extent of the alleged “collusion” was mind-boggling.

The four movie and TV production companies (and the executives associated with them) named in the complaint are:

Jersey Films and Jersey Television (Danny DeVito)
The Playtone Company (Tom Hanks)
Smokehouse Productions (George Clooney)
Tribeca Film (Robert DeNiro)

Anyone who believes in the value and nobility of the labor movement is going to root for this NLRB complaint to succeed. Of course, taking on famous movie stars like these guys will be an uphill climb, but it’s certainly worth the effort. And who knows? Maybe the NLRB will provide us with one of Hollywood’s patented “surprise endings.”

This article was originally published on October 31, 2012 on Dissident Voice. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: David Macaray is a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”).  His political and entertainment articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Common Dreams,  New York Press, Huffington Post, Utne Reader, Beckett Monthly, LA Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and various anthologies.

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