Monday, March 2, 2009

Do actors need unions and can they survive? Missive #2

First of all, in response to the several comments sent my way pointing out actors are free NOT to accept union  scale I should say that of course you are correct but I think there is an important distinction to note.  Not accepting scale for a particular job does not necessarily have the effect of increasing your earning potential across the board.  In fact it very rarely correlates in my experience.   Effectively you price yourself out of one contract without enhancing your bargaining power in another.

So, if one can make the argument that collectively bargaining a wage can have the unintended consequence of undercutting negotiating power why do actors join?  In the short term clearly there aren't many options as the unions own a monopoly on labor.  Yes an actor can choose Fi-Core but I have to think that tends to increase the amount of available work only and not the earning power of an actor being offered that work. In fact that work usually pays less precisely because it exists outside the negotiated union structure and enjoys a cost advantage for the producer that would obviously vanish if the unions didn't have established pay  scales.  And just as obviously the appeal to the actor is that the level of competition is much much lower and so the work is relatively easier to book, also an advantage that would disappear absent scale.

Since this isn't meant to be a polemic this would be a good time to acknowledge how successful the unions have been in the last 50 years in changing the producer-actor dynamic.    Much of what is thought of as "business as usual" is due directly to benefits won by the unions at one point or another.   Paradoxically its that same success which they might fall victim to.  

I doubt too many  will join me on this but  I'm strongly  of the opinion that there is no benefit to producers in breaking the union or drastically altering the business model as it exists currently.   Why the hell would I say that?   The lesson I take from the 2000 commercial strike as well as the brinkmanship with the writers and directors since then is that producers want and need collective contracts for cost certainty and efficiency.   Yes they will try to skew contract details to their advantage just as actors will but they are only fiddling in the margins.  If producers actually wanted to break the unions they could do it with very little trouble but it isn't in their interest to do so.  They are well served by the certainty of this structure and have an obvious interest in sustaining it.

If that's the case, and I realize Im out on that limb by my lonesome, but if that is the case then what exactly  is the union bringing to the table?   They've won the war.  Why not disarm?
Health.  Pension.  

In terms of real value this is the entire game and frankly I think it really all boils down to healthcare.  In the last 20 years the entry costs for individual investors has plummeted to the point that its hard to argue that managed pension funds are a necessity or even a particular benefit.   There is no structural reason that actors could not fund their own retirement savings just as any other small business owner can.  So its all about health insurance and as such the unions face two unavoidable doomsday scenarios as I see it.  One or the other will almost certainly come to pass at some point.

The hard truth of rising health costs means  fewer and fewer members will qualify  for coverage in the future and those that do will pay more and get less.  Couple shrinking benefits with rising costs in union dues and its only a matter of time before the rank and file member starts to feel the pinch and legitimately ask whether membership is even worth the dues.   There is no avoiding the reality that the answer to that question will be no.

Perhaps even more troubling is the possible likelihood of government sponsored healthcare.  If at some point the government is able to break the nexus between employment and healthcare either by providing it directly or controlling price points the union will be irrelevant in that respect and lose most of its reason for being.   Ironic because my guess would be that the vast majority of union actors vote for  politicians who claim to favor a greater role for government in health care. Essentially we  are slowly voting the union out of existence.

1 comment:

  1. touche..........realized that five years ago.
    when i realized i was paying dues for the healthcare of union office workers.....while i had none.