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Posts Tagged ‘SAG’

Prince Was a Champion for Working People

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Kenneth-Quinnell_smallThe world lost a musical icon [on April 21]. You’ll read about his impact as a musician and an entertainer elsewhere, but let’s take a second to look at Prince’s career-spanning fights on behalf of working people.

For more than 40 years, Prince was a union member, a long-standing member of both the Twin Cities Musicians Local 30-73 of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and SAG-AFTRA. Beginning with “Ronnie Talk to Russia” in 1981 on through hits like “Sign o’ the Times” and later works like “We March” and “Baltimore,” Prince’s music often reflected the dreams, struggles, fears and hopes of working people. (And he wasn’t limited to words, his Baltimore concert in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death raised funds to help the city recover. I got to sit on the right side of the stage, high in the rafters, to watch joyously.) Few of America’s artists have so well captured the plight of working Americans as Prince, putting him in the line of artists like Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen as working-class heroes.

Ray Hair, president of AFM, spoke of Prince’s importance: “We are devastated about the loss of Prince, a member of our union for over 40 years. Prince was not only a talented and innovative musician, but also a true champion of musicians’ rights. Musicians—and fans throughout the world—will miss him. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and fans grieving right now.

And this is a key part of his legacy. Prince was deeply talented and could have easily made his success without much help from others. And yet he was a massive supporter of other artists, from writing and producing songs for artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, the Bangles, Sinéad O’Connor, Vanity, Morris Day and the Time and Tevin Campbell (among many others) to his mentoring and elevating of women in music, to the time where he put his own career on the line in defense of the rights of artists. And every musician that came after owes him a debt of gratitude.

The music industry has a deeply troubled past, with stories of corporations exploiting musicians, especially African American musicians, being plentiful enough to fill libraries. At the height of his popularity, Prince decided that he would fight back. He was set, financially and career-wise, and had nothing to gain from taking on the onerous contracts that artists were saddled with when they were young, inexperienced and hungry. If he lost everything by taking on the industry, he still had money and fame to rely on. But he knew this wasn’t true for many other musicians, and Prince was always a fan of music, and he knew that taking on this battle would help others. So he took on the recording industry on behalf of music. On behalf of the industry’s working people—the musicians themselves.

And it cost him his name and his fame.

In the ensuing battle, Prince famously renounced his birth name and began performing under an unpronouncable symbol instead of a name. He fought the company at every turn, even writing the word “slave” on his face in protest of the conditions he worked under. He said: “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face. But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I?” For the rest of his career, which never recovered to his early heights, he continually fought to change the way that record companies treated artists, explored new ways to distribute music to fans and battled to give artists more control and more revenue for the art they create. In a still-changing musical landscape, Prince was one of a handful of artists who helped shape a future where musicians, working people, get the fruits of their labor.

In honor of Prince’s passing, check out his performance, an all-time great, at the country’s largest annual event brought to you by union workers, the Super Bowl.

This blog originally appeared at aflcio.org on April 22, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Kenneth Quinnell: I am a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, I 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.  My writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  I am the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.

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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