Full disclosure: I’m not affiliated with any of my country’s 21 film trade unions, but I’m seriously considering joining one once my current job in the public sector is finished.
Having said that, we’ve all heard -and many may have lived through- the horror stories of film trade unions in the sixties and seventies of last century.
Shop stewards who did nothing but nag, mandatory crews with too many people doing not enough work, horribly mismatched shifts between on-camera talent and behind-the-camera crew, forcing companies to incur ludicrous overtime, etc.
And on the workers’ side there was also a large load of bull to be had: closed up ranks, so no one from outside the “families” could get into the biz edgewise, abuse of power on designating “most favored crews” to good jobs, shady management of union dues, the works.
In my case, as a young camera apprentice back in the eighties, I must say I was always treated fine by the two unions that ruled over the business in Mexico at the time, but chose never to join out of my own.
Later on, as a sweeping economic crisis destroyed almost all productive activity in my country, including film production, the film unions began an evolution process that has turned them from the classic “proletarian vs. capitalist” rhetoric, into a “service-provider to user-client” relationship.
There remains, however, a social component to working with unions that I think should be defended, both by producers as well as by workers themselves.
From the producer’s traditional point of view, the trade union is at best a “necessary evil”, a worker’s nuisance they have to deal with, in order to achieve the goal of making the best possible content, for the lowest possible price. This is the flat out logic of capitalism and the only reason one would deal with trade unions would be because they represent some real power on the industry, but, like all “sum-zero” games, it does not work exactly that way in reality.
Workers, film workers in our case, are technically proficient as well as artistically inclined, they range (and unions reflect this) from highly skilled set carpenters to incredibly sensitive (and famous, and powerful) actors and screenwriters.
Training a person to perform the task required from, for instance, a good dolly grip, can take years, and can prove impossible in certain situations, not because the dolly grip in question is incapable or dense, but, due to film production’s intense collaborative nature, there just may be no “chemistry” between the camera operator and the dolly grip, and that will be the end of it.
One great thing about working with trade unions is the fact that they provide highly professional people for each job, who can understand the quirky nature of making and re making a film crew.
Also, it helps a lot to have collective bargaining when it comes to signing the increasingly complex “buy-out” deals required by today’s multi-platform content, in particular as you negotiate with screenwriters, having a guild as a possible arbitrator or their standards and practices to fall back on is a great place to begin.
But there’s also a socially responsible side for companies to deal with unions.
Worker’s, and producers are workers as well, and even actor’s (and yes, sometimes even those who get the big checks today) rely on solidarity based social security systems to provide for them when they get too sick to carry on working, or too old, or when they want to buy a house, or get a better rated credit line to send their kids to university, and in avoiding working with unions all of us contribute to destroying the solidarity system that is the basic foundation of what we call the “welfare state”.
Yes, it’s arguable that we live in an “every man for himself” kind of world, I won’t deny it, but it’s surprising to me when companies that are founded and ran by people who sing up for every single “save the (place your cause here)” issue, decide that unions, worker solidarity and social security are irrelevant.
Even more surprising, at least in my country, finding out that big name actors, who could make the industry turn on a dime if they wanted, are the first to navigate away from their union, the most powerful in the industry, and the one that set the standard for everyone (after all, no one ever wet to see a film because they read a credit that said: “Dolly Grip by Juan Martínez”, right?), leaving the rest of the workers in a weird and lonely position, not being able to pull much muscle anymore, because “the big shots are ok with going non-union”, but still needing the work, even in hard and, sometimes abusive conditions.
Our powerful brothers and sisters, in the” big name” trades, such as acting, directing, and screenwriting cannot be the first ones to abandon ship. If they desert union shows, there’s no reason for any contracts down the line to be made within union rule, therefore, we’re all left unprotected and, in some recent and very visible cases in my country, even former stars, who commanded big pay checks in days long gone, have been left without medical benefits because their union could not afford them, due to increasing financial hardships from lower union fees, in a paradoxically ever growing industry.
Mexican Labor Law allows for any worker to be hired in a non-union fashion, so it’s perfectly legal, but being a romantic, I kind of wish we could find a better way, where content could be made to the great quality standards Mexican film production workers are famous for, at the great prices producers can get in Mexico, while keeping the solidarity of a united film industry that cares for those of us who belong to it in the long run.