This week, the Screen Actors Guild emailed all of its members, asking them to support the union protests in Wisconsin threatening to shut down large segments of the state’s public services. SAG explained to its constituents, “Please know that your Guild is taking action to support our fellow union members in Wisconsin. We are reaching out to our members in and around Wisconsin and our legislative committee members to travel to Madison this week so that working families there know that we stand with them.”
It is beyond ridiculous for SAG to pretend to be a working class union. It is not. It is a small cadre of people who work for incredibly high pay, and who shut everyone else out of the business. SAG doesn’t even release its employment figures or its healthcare figures. It’s great to be a member of SAG, if you can get work. But it’s difficult to become a member of SAG, and it’s more difficult to stay a member of SAG, since you aren’t allowed to work as a performer for any producer who doesn’t have a blanket agreement with SAG. This is one reason why productions are moving overseas, to countries where SAG doesn’t dominate the negotiations.
This isn’t unusual in Hollywood. The Writers Guild works the same way. As of 2007, just 52 percent of West Coast Writers Guild of America members are employed. The average working WGA member takes home about $200,000 per year. The rest of the writers in Hollywood wait tables or take non-union jobs to make ends meet.
This isn’t to argue that unions or guilds aren’t necessary in Hollywood. In some cases, they are (for example, I supported the WGA strike over pay for online content). But for them to pose as representatives of the people is simply absurd, especially when they use their members’ cash for causes like this.
Then there’s the problem of private vs. public unions. You would imagine that SAG and the WGA would support Scott Walker’s attempt to break the public unions – after all, they’re taxpayers in their own right, and when they collectively bargain, they do so with private employers, not with the government. Where public unions attempt to bilk taxpayers of their cash by striking without regard to the fact that they create zero profits, private unions supposedly strike in order to centralize a larger chunk of the profits they create. Private unions and public unions are as different as night and day.
But now they stand together – not for practical reasons, but for ideological ones. The leadership of these unions is not interested in promoting its own workers, but in the broader “workers’ struggle” – i.e. socialism. Private unions used to be some of the biggest opponents of public unions – now they’re their biggest supporters.
Liberalism trumps all in Hollywood. But that’s nothing new. In writing my new book, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story Of How The Left Took Over Your TV (to be released by Harper Collins on May 31), I interviewed Burt Prelutsky, a former writer on M*A*S*H and two-term member of the Writers Guild board of directors. Prelutsky related a telling anecdote: as a member of the board, he had to vote on whether to give Guild money to a defense fund for a gallery owner who had displayed the pornographic works of Robert Mapplethorpe. “I spoke against them, which must have been an eye opener to the other people in the room,” Prelutsky remembered. “The eye opening thing was that once they got over their shock that I was arguing against it, they almost tuned me out.” Let’s not forget that the WGA also stood by idly for years as the industry discriminated against older writers.
When unions abandon their members, they become useless. For Hollywood’s writers, directors, and actors, it’s time to ask whether the unions are truly serving their purpose anymore. If not, alternate unions should be formed, or – gasp! – the unions should be dissolved altogether, allowing new faces into the mix and bringing down the costs of production.