Hollywood has been a strong union town for decades. But labor's strength has declined in recent years, creating a distressing dilemma for unions of skilled film craft workers: They can make significant contract concessions to management or watch more and more of their jobs go to non-union producers, here and abroad.
Making the dilemma even more frustrating and infuriating for the 24,000 behind-the-camera craft workers here is that the studios are generally quite prosperous and some film stars and executives continue to make millions.
It seems almost incomprehensible at first glance for unionized film industry workers to voluntarily offer to surrender some hard-won contract benefits to companies that are making good profits.
Yet unionized workers in other industries, such as steel, trucking and construction, lost tens of thousands of jobs by the time they began agreeing to substantial contract concessions. And, despite the belated concessions, non-union companies are continuing to make inroads in several industries, only some of which are as profitable as the film industry.
More union workers will lose jobs in the film industry unless concessions are made. In theory, that course might be avoided if all Hollywood unions adopted a united, militant stand against concessions and concentrated instead on organizing non-union workers and striking the low-wage companies.
But the hope of ever getting such labor unity is dimmer than the chance that such a strategy could succeed if tried.
In these days of relatively high unemployment, large numbers of workers are willing to take jobs offering wages and benefits far below union levels.
Many employers cannot, or at least do not, resist the temptation to hire the cheaper labor, either to make more money for themselves or to better compete against other companies.
The workers' dilemma is being studied by the unions and major film companies amid a lot of talk--but little action--from Gov. George Deukmejian about plans to aid the industry's current campaign to slow runaway film production and keep movie-making in California.
Many unions and producers want to keep Hollywood the world film industry capital. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the major studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers have started negotiations to see if labor costs can be reduced enough to curb the trend toward non-union production inside and outside of Hollywood.
Five years ago, only about 10% to 15% of the production work on theatrical and TV films was done by non-union firms, almost all of which was in Hollywood or was produced abroad by the runaway companies. Now 40% or more is non-union or foreign-made. (This does not include traditional filming on location abroad by unionized companies for creative reasons rather than just for cheap labor.)
The unions want to keep the non-union trend from accelerating for obvious reasons.
Management's motive is nearly as obvious: The industry has huge investments in its studios here and it is enormously expensive to move everything out to get non-union workers. Management doesn't try bringing non-union workers into the studios here partly because the result probably would be ugly, physical battles like those waged decades ago when management so furiously fought workers' efforts to form unions.
Also, the union workers are valuable assets. The president of the producers' alliance, Nicholas Counter III, says that "the labor pool available here is the most highly skilled in the world. If we have our choice, we would want to produce here. We are not trying to get rid of our unionized work force."
Encouraged by the unionized firms, and to serve its own cause, IATSE has conducted an intensive organizing drive among non-union companies, but it is slow going. In December, though, the union won a major victory less than a week after striking at Cannon Films, Hollywood's largest non-union producer.
Cannon agreed to recognize the union as bargaining agent for its production workers after the union agreed to negotiate separate contracts for high-budget and low-budget films.
The union also agreed to do the same for the other major producers, and a low-budget pact with them is expected next month. But it isn't as simple as it sounds.
Management and union negotiators have agreed that a film should cost under $6 million to qualify as a low-budget production. But the two sides are still debating the crucial question of what expenses should be taken into account to determine which films meet the $6-million limit.
Also, many members and influential leaders of IATSE aren't happy with the idea of a cut-rate contract. Even if one is negotiated, it may face a tough battle for ratification by militants who say the time has come to fight concessions to profitable companies.
The talks will go on, however, and in general terms, here is the state of negotiations: