photo courtesy IATSE
A couple of years ago you may all remember that the Southern California grocery workers went on strike. It was quite a long one, lasting several months and you could tell as you drove past the pickets that they were getting mighty frayed and tired toward the end. A surprisingly few number of people crossed the picket lines -- we shopped at neighborhood grocery stores and those that hadn't been struck, changing our habits in a simple show of solidarity.
Yesterday, I was at one of those stores and overheard a very heartening conversation between a couple of customers and a couple of grocery workers. The customers were members of the striking WGA and they were talking with the grocery guys about the strike. They were very animated, talking tactics and telling of their experiences as Union Men. It brought home to me again why unions are important.
You hear a lot of nasty snark in this town about how these WGA strikers are all millionaires playing at being hardhats, and it totally misses the point. The union movement is about solidarity, which is a fundamental progressive value. I have no idea if those fellows in the store were highly paid TV writers or hopeful freelance screenwriters or what, but it wasn't relevant to the conversation. Those four guys had interests in common in their relationship to the owners of their industries. Unions are one of the vehicles that can make our capitalist society work to the benefit of all and not just the few.
The derisive tone much of the media has taken to the strike is nothing new, by the way. Just a few weeks back when the UAW went on strike against GM, Jim Cramer was apoplectic on Hardball screaming, "They have to break this union! They have to break this union!"(and Chris Salt-Of-The-Earth Matthews nodded in agreement.)
And they have always been especially hostile to the Hollywood unions, which were forged back in the day with battles in the streets. The right to organize in the entertainment business was extremely hard won and in many cases those who fought it were later blacklisted as commies for their trouble. It's never been frivolous. The propensity to exploit in competitive "glamour" fields is very, very strong and it was always about making sure that those who weren't on the A-list could make a decent living and build normal middle class lives. (And from the beginning many of the A-list marched in solidarity with their less rich and famous brethren. It may even have been partially in self-interest. Show business may be one of the most insecure professions on earth.)
Perhaps the seminal event in Hollywood organizing history is called "The War for Warner Brothers":
By early October 1945 [the union] was not just running out of money, it was running out of patience. Temperatures were at record highs and nerves were frazzled. CSU President, Herb Sorrell, decided to make a stand at Warner Bros. On October 5th, some 300 strikers gather at Warner Bros. main gate at 4 A.M. on a typically warm day during this pivotal month. Shortly thereafter, strikebreakers, Chicago goons and county police attacked. They were armed with chains, bolts, hammers, six inch pipes, brass knuckles, wooden mallets and battery cables. The county sheriffs marched two and three abreast, steel-helmeted and reinforced with tear gas masks, and night sticks, Some carried 30-30 Garrand rifles and two were weighted down with an arsenal of tear gas bombs. The Warner Bros. studio police lobbed canisters of tear-gas from the roofs of the buildings at the entrance.
Pickets had their own “white-painted air-raid warden helmets” that shone eerily in the predawn gloom. These helmets and weapons added to the perception that this strike had become a pitched battle, a war. As Sorrell recalled it, “First, they drove through the picket lines at a high rate of speed, several cars. I think we took four people to the hospital. The fire hoses were dragged out; they turned them on the people’s feet and just swept them right out from under… they threw tear gas bombs… there were women knocked down… It was a slaughter.” The riot at Warner Bros. hit Hollywood and the nation like a thunderclap.
This wasn't the only fight. There were the writers, actors, animators and others all forging their right to organize with very, very tough strikes. Their unions were extremely hard won.
Today the writers are striking because the industry financial models are changing and the owners are refusing to fairly compensate writers within these models. They do it every time and every time the writers and actors and others have to fight the battle anew. Today we aren't seeing blood in the streets, and that's a big relief. But the principles are always the same. It isn't about the rare millionare writer. It's about the many more numerous union members who aren't millionaires and live on those residuals and need those pension and health care benefits. The union is the only security they have.
I was listening to the radio the other day and Paul Krugman was on taking calls. A woman on the show was bemoaning the fact that so many jobs were being outsourced and wondering how we could possibly compete in a global economy. Krugman relied, "One word. Unions." He pointed out that all the other first world economies in Europe and Canada have a much higher rate of unionization that we do. The breaking of the unions in this country was obviously not essential for economic growth --- it was done for political reasons to benefit the right wing and its corporate owners. It doesn't have to be that way.
Unions and the solidarity it promotes are an important key to a progressive America, whether it's the Writers Guild or the UAW or the janitors or the health care workers. They promote a strong and stable middle class --- and help us see ourselves as one people with common interests.
If you want to learn more about the strike this is a good place to go. If you live in LA or New York, you can help the union by keeping abreast of the news and showing up at the picket lines to show support. you can sign a petition of support here. And we can all help workers everywhere by voting for politicians who support the union movement. It's the American way.
There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.
Update: For those of you in the LA area, the picketers are going to be at Fox Studios (10201 Pico) at 10 AM tomorrow. I'm told there will be a big show of solidarity from SAG so there should be some people you recognize. (You can park at the century City Mall and walk over.)
A big fan turnout would be helpful. The one thing the studios really don't want is a consumer backlash --- and it would mean a lot to the writers.
Correction: A reader writes in to remind me that:
Only one store in Southern California was actually struck. The other two chains did a lockout of workers. This was a union-busting move by the supermarkets to prevent the unions from doing rolling strikes (which would have inconvenienced southern Californians a lot less).