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One big family union

Hollywood's creative community might fare better if all its unions merged.

January 02, 2009|JOEL STEIN

Idon't like unions, and yet I am a member of two. Despite the fact that 95% of my working time is spent on journalism, and 95% of my time is spent not working, the little Hollywood work I do required that I join both the Writers Guild of America and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. For those wondering, I am a television artist. Much like Bob Ross.

I had to join the WGA and AFTRA just to write sitcoms that never get on the air, and to make catty remarks about Kim Kardashian on E! If I ever succeed in entertainment the way I dreamed of as a kid, I'll have to join even more unions: the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Lollipop Guild.

There are so many unions in Hollywood that even though we television artists settled our contract with networks and studios last May, the screen actors are about to vote on authorizing a strike -- despite the economic disaster that was last year's writers strike. Actors, as you can imagine, don't always follow the news.

That's why all these unions need to merge into one super-union, which I propose calling Joel Stein, though I'd also be OK with United Workers Who Bring You the Entertainment You Love, Along With the Entertainment You Don't Like, Though We'd Rather Not Focus On That. I think we all can agree that "Joel Stein" is a far better name for the new guild.

Not only would this merger mean I don't have to pay dues to two different groups, which is my true motivation, but Hollywood's workers would be far more powerful. Our enormous union would be able to cut an even better deal with health insurance companies. And we'd be much stronger when we negotiated with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, which is a similar group of merged conglomerates. Also, we would be able to save money by holding just one awards show that no one cares about.

The United Auto Workers doesn't have separate unions for machinists, welders, riveters and new car perfumers. That's why its members were able to get paid so much that the entire automotive industry collapsed. Which is always my goal as an employee. I'm doing a pretty good job in journalism already.

Our new union will have the right combination of personalities to calmly negotiate. Sure, our membership will skew toward out-of-work actors eager to strike because, really, what's the difference between walking in circles around a studio lot and an audition? But it also will have managerial-minded directors and socialist-leaning writers. Contracts might get settled pretty quickly if the directors' representative threatens the producers by saying, "Maybe this would work better if I leave and you spend the next four hours at the table talking to an actor ... on the phone ... while staring at a writer."

It makes sense that we'd all be in one union. We're all fighting for the same things: residuals, Internet revenue. When one group strikes, we're all out of work. Besides, back when it was Homer and his lute, the job of actor, director and writer was just known as storyteller. Which is why so many successful storytellers -- George Clooney, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford -- are in all the unions. Also, for the mixers.

I ran my mega-union idea by Patric M. Verrone, the president of the Writers Guild, and he loved it. "Why stop there? Let's merge with AFTRA, the IATSE, Teamsters Local 399, the basic trades unions and the AFM," he said, clearly making up extra unions to seem tougher. "If the AMPTP can unite competitive, global media conglomerates, why can't talent do the same?" Verrone's eagerness to join hands with the other guilds told me one thing: Writers definitely are the least important people in Hollywood.

I hope the directors' and actors' unions are just as enthusiastic. If we can all come together, we'll have the leverage to avert a SAG strike and get much of what we all want. Besides, in a few years, our mega-union is going to have to merge with the AMPTP itself so we can take on our common enemy: people with video cameras and a YouTube account who are willing to work for free. You think negotiating with Rupert Murdoch is tough? Try getting concessions out of a funny cat.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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