The article below was originally published on the website of The Intellectual Activist on April 17, 2001 shortly before an impending writers strike that was averted near the eleventh hour. Now, six years later, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is again threatening to strike when its current labor contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) expires on October 31. Labor contracts of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA) expire on June 30; according to some industry observers, those unions could join forces with the WGA against the AMPTP.
The current labor dispute differs from the one in 2001, and from the prior one in 2000 with the actors unions, in many specifics. The financial formulas under dispute are different. And, in some ways, the AMPTP is being more assertive this time; for example, the AMPTP published on its Web site instructions (http://www.amptp.org/wgastrikefaq.html) on how writers can use “financial core” membership to neutralize some–though not all–of the WGA’s coercive tactics.
But though specifics have changed, the essentials remain the same. And so the lesson to be learned from the Hollywood labor disputes of 2000 and 2001 is worth revisiting.
In the looming strikes in Hollywood–by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on May 2, 2001 and both the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA) on July 1–it is assumed that the adversaries are the film and television producers on one side, and the writers and actors on the other. But the real adversaries are: the producers, writers, and actors who want to work together by mutual consent vs. the unions who use physical force to stop them. The conflict is not over money, but over political ideology: political freedom vs. forced obedience to a group.
The Hollywood unions are allowed to get away with using force because of unjust labor laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). But despite having this terrible, unjust weapon, the unions can be defeated in the coming strikes.
The key to defeating the unions is to identify and denounce the corrupt moral code the unions preach relentlessly to rationalize their coercive acts. It is the unions’ preaching of this code, and their consistent claim that they are the side of principle, that persuades actors and writers to bear personal hardship and maintain “solidarity” with the collective. If producers take the firm stand that they–not the unions–are the moral, principled side, then union solidarity will crumble.
A look at last year’s strike by SAG and AFTRA against commercial advertisers is instructive.
In that six-month strike, one part of SAG’s program of coercion was its relentless campaign to disrupt non-union commercial shoots throughout the US. SAG’s Web site recounts numerous disruptions–for instance: “a night picket against Toyota Motor Sales USA at the San Pedro Harbor. The strike team forced the production crew to cancel a proposed shoot.”
Actors’ trade newspaper Backstage West (8/24/00) quoted SAG strike team member Steve Barr describing SAG’s disruptive tactics: “Well, you stand on the corner with a bubble machine that shoots out bubbles like a machine gun–it gets all over the paint [of the car being shot in a commercial]. We can make noise, we can pound on pots and pans, use drums, radios, bullhorns. That’s all legal.”
If it’s legal, it shouldn’t be. If these “actors” seem like nothing more than envious, spiteful children who won’t let anyone else play when they are not chosen for a game, keep in mind that their “acting out” forced producers to spend countless extra millions to shoot commercials in expensive studios or secret locations worldwide, one step ahead of the stalking hoodlums. Though children who act out destructive emotional impulses should be sent to their room, adults who violate individual rights through criminal harassment and destruction of property should be been charged, tried, and sent to prison.
Regarding advertiser General Motors, SAG’s Web site describes union actions that “blocked several trucks from entering the [GM] plant.” SAG official Barbara Honner stated: “Our message to GM is, if you won’t allow us to make commercials, we won’t allow you to make cars.” This outrageous shakedown is like saying: “If you won’t let us paint your house, we won’t let you live in it.” What SAG evaded is that GM’s commercials and GM’s factories are GM’s property.
Variety (9/27/00) quoted SAG strike captain Michael Brennan bragging: “We believe that we’ve caused millions of dollars of economic damage to GM.” SAG’s actions were as immoral, and should have been as criminal, as robbing millions of dollars from GM’s bank account.
Can anyone imagine GM picketing the homes of Ford-owners, trying to prevent them from exiting their driveways–or Toyota picketing theatre performances and film shoots, and making noises to disrupt performances of SAG actors?
America’s leading corporations, such as GM, Toyota, and producers such as Disney and Warner Brothers, are far too ethical to violate the rights of individuals who buy from competitors. Rather, they use persuasion–through commercials, promotions, lower prices, etc. But when corporations buy the services of non-union actors–who are competitors of union actors–the unions resort to force. They declare: If you don’t buy from us, we will shut you down.
Coercion of producers is only half of the Hollywood unions’ campaign of force. The other half is their persecution of those they claim to protect: individual actors and writers. Consider how the unions maintain their virtual monopoly on experienced professionals. Do they have talent scouts combing the country, signing those they judge to have the most skill and talent? No. Instead, they lie in wait, until a producer discovers a new writer or actor. Then, relying on closed-shop “contracts” made under the coercion of the NLRA–which force employers to bargain “in good faith” as decided by NLRB bureaucrats (see, for example, NLRA Sections 8(a)(3) and 8(d))–they force the producer to relinquish the name of this new talent, and they tell the talent: “If you don’t pay us money, join our gang and do what we say, we will stop you from ever working again.”
About 10 years ago, AFTRA contacted me and said that if I did not pay more than $700 immediately to join the union, they would stop me from doing an acting job I’d already been hired for–and which paid only about $100. When I refused to pay, AFTRA forced the employer to fire me.
As philosopher Ayn Rand wrote of the mentality of those who try to get their way by force, “An Attila never thinks of creating, only of taking over.” The Hollywood unions are nothing more than legalized extortion rings–that try to take over the creative production of others. Union persecution of non-union actors and writers does not stop when a strike begins. When the unions go on strike, they don’t merely refuse to work; they use the threat of force to prevent others from working.
During the commercial strike, SAG’s Web site declared: “The SAG/AFTRA Strike Committee has passed a motion recommending that membership in SAG and AFTRA be denied to any future membership applicant that has performed struck work.” Had the unions not used force to obtain their near-monopoly on experienced actors, such blacklisting of applicants would be their right. But while SAG won’t admit non-union actors who defied the strike, it hypocritically demands the enforcement of unjust labor laws (e.g., NLRA Section 8(a)(3)) that force employers to hire past strikers and hoodlums (and exclude rights-respecting non-union performers).
In the coming writers strike, the WGA is using the same blacklist threat used by SAG. On the screenwriting Web site Wordplay, screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, who sits on WGA’s Board of Directors, posted this succinct message: “If a non-WGA member sells to a signatory or anyone on our strike list, they’re [sic] a scab… and their chances of getting into the guild in the future will be slim to none.” [Ellipsis in original.]
Imagine a Hollywood studio saying, “Any young artist who works for an independent filmmaker who won’t sign with us will never be allowed to work for a major studio.” SAG has already implemented its promised blacklisting, though its lawyers advised the union that the blacklists could be enforced for only five years instead of life. SAG’s Web site declares: “ScabFinders [a SAG group] have identified over 1500 possible scabs–members and non-members who may have done struck work during the recent Commercials strike…. Members who are suspected of doing struck work are being summoned to trial boards.” The Web site also includes a phone number and email address for snitches to call “if [they] think [they] know or recognize someone who auditioned for/performed in a struck commercial.” During the strike, SAG had a wall covered with headshots, pilfered by union moles from casting sessions, of suspected “scabs.” And SAG was planning to circulate, among agents and casting directors, lengthy video reels of non-union commercials, with the instruction that actors appearing in these commercials should be fingered.
SAG trumpets the damage its blacklisting can do to a performer’s career. A SAG/AFTRA “Open Letter to Performers Wishing to Work During the Strike,” stated: “A SAG or AFTRA membership card is your only shot at financial success in this business.” Thus SAG’s blacklist is a willful attempt to end the professional careers of non-believers in its collective.
After the conclusion of a strike, though the unions choose to ruin the careers of “scabs”–i.e., competitors–the unions yet choose to work with producers who hired those competitors. Clearly, the unions’ choice of whom to ruin and whom to work with is not based on a moral principle, but on a basic rule of thuggery: “Use force on those you can, when you can; when force won’t work on someone, be his friend.” The unions think they can get away with forcing their competitors into ruin; so they try it. But though they will coerce their customers–the producers–they are loathe to go so far as to ruin them, because if parasites kill their host, the parasites die too.
Nevertheless, the host is gradually dying. Due to union extortion, more and more television and film production is moving out of Hollywood. As has happened throughout history, the Attilas are running out of victims to extort. Actors and writers who support the unions are ruining their own industry and destroying their own opportunities. Screenplays they would love to see made into movies will never be made, or they will be made abroad with actors abroad, because domestic costs have been inflated by the unions. And entertainment profits that could have remained in the hands of producers, who earned those profits, so that the profits could have been re-invested in more films, will go to mediocre union workers instead. (Stars don’t need a union to earn their millions. Indeed, every dollar extorted for the unions’ legion of mediocrities is a dollar that cannot be paid to an extraordinary talent, who earns his high pay.)
The immoral course always hurts the perpetrators as much as the victims.
Actors cannot be blamed for joining the unions when they have been coerced into doing so. But they should be blamed when they are vocal supporters and actually take part in the unions’ coercive activities against others.
But though there have been vocal villains among actors and writers, there have also been silent heroes. Despite the promised ruination of “scabs,” according to SAG 1,500 union and non-union actors defied the unions and performed in commercials–though most of these actors tried to keep their actions secret. If not for SAG’s costly disruptions of shoots, commercial advertisers probably would have gone on indefinitely using this large pool of talent, thereby enfeebling the unions in the commercial industry. This is just what has occurred in England. In 1997, the actors union British Equity struck against commercials, but the actors resumed working several months later on the advertisers’ terms while the strike continued in name only. Because the British union did not use force as systematically as the Hollywood unions did, it lost.
Thus, physical force (which includes extortionist threats of force) was a pivotal weapon for the Hollywood unions. Yet, even with this weapon, the unions would still have lost had they not wielded another weapon even more powerful.
In addition to the 1,500 commercial “scabs” were many actors who, after they’d signed lucrative contracts to perform in struck commercials, backed out of the jobs. While some reneged due to threats by union members who tracked them down before the shoots, others reneged because they accepted the unions’ claim that “solidarity” (called “collusion” when businesses try it) was the principled, moral course.
What moral justification do the unions offer for their use of force? Throughout the commercial strike, the unions argued that, since profits had risen for “greedy” corporations and advertisers, pay should rise for actors too. This year, the unions are making the same claim against film and television producers, demanding a “fair share” of increased producers’ profits. (The unions have the gall to call their goal a “fair share.” Sharing is a voluntary action. Something taken by force is not a “share.” It is plunder.)
A recent message to SAG members from SAG lead negotiators Steven Burrow and Brian Walton states the union’s reason for demanding more money: “Now corporate profits are outpacing the wages paid to the actors who made growth of the industry possible.”
Imagine a corporation stating, “We’re raising our prices because our customers are making more money.” Would you buy a car or computer from a company that said that? But the unions’ approach is even worse: “We’ll force our customers to pay our higher prices because they are making more money.”
One person’s success is no obligation to share his success with everyone else. When an actor lands a job, should he be forced to pay higher rent for the same old apartment, when there are cheaper and better apartments available? Should union spokesmen like Richard Dreyfuss and Susan Sarandon be forced to give up some of their acting roles to share with those who have none? Free individuals–producers included–have no obligation to pay more than free-market rates for anything–actors and writers included. Some actors and writers are glad to work for far less than current union rates. If a union member won’t compete with such individuals, on the basis of price as well as quality, he is no professional. And when he coerces his competitors and former customers, he is a thug.
There is no cap on how much profit a productive individual has the moral right to earn and to keep. The recognition of this fact is the virtue of greed. Yes, greed is a virtue–the virtue of pursuing one’s happiness to the fullest. In contrast, the unions’ attack on producers for making more money is plain envy.
Note that even in the realm of values, the unions are parasites. Hollywood writers and actors are notorious for decrying money, wealth, profit, as corrupters of art, integrity, and morality. But let them see a wealthy producer, and suddenly they too want wealth–the producer’s wealth.
Envy is the sole justification the unions offer for their use of force. Their argument amounts to: “They have what we don’t have. Now we want it too (though we never wanted it until we saw them having it). Therefore, they should give it to us. If they won’t, we won’t let them have it anymore either.”
If you are a writer or actor, the only moral way to get high pay when in competition with low-priced competitors is to show that you–as an individual, not as a member of a monolithic union–are so extraordinarily good, so much better than most of your fellow writers and actors, that you are worth your higher price. If union members really think they are so valuable to producers, then they should take this challenge: Stop using coercive measures, such as disrupting shoots and extorting obedience from competitors. Try to make your case by rational persuasion, not force. If you are right, then producers who choose to meet your price will make more money than those who don’t. Then the most rational, greedy producers will compete with each other to pay you more–with or without your union. But the unions will never accept this challenge, because it goes against their very nature as coercive organizations driven by envy.
(If an actor or writer wants to join an organization of colleagues that claims to look out for his interests, that is his right, just as any professional has a right to join a trade group or retain a credit-checking service. But once such an organization uses force, it is no longer a trade group, but a gang.)
A slogan used by SAG picketers during the commercial strike went: “Hey hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go.” But if actors despise “corporate greed,” why do they do commercials and “commercial Hollywood films” in the first place? Why do they, hypocritically, make and hawk products for their greedy “enemies”?
Actors, of all people, should acknowledge what philosopher Ayn Rand calls “the virtue of selfishness.” Is it altruism to perform before a camera? Do actors act in order to help the poor, or to help their fellow actors? Altruism may be a secondary, misguided motivation for some, but the primary motivation is–and should be–personal, selfish joy.
The real conflict in the Hollywood strikes is not over money, but morality. If film and television producers, along with freedom-loving writers and actors, want to defend their rights and beat the unions once and for all, selfishness is the virtue they must proclaim and appeal to.
Unfortunately, producers so far have been taking exactly the worst approach possible for their own interest. They have claimed that profit margins are squeezed, and that–with the coming recession–the unions’ demanded raises will bankrupt them. Instead of standing up for their own rights and telling the extortionists to get lost, the producers are saying that they cannot afford to make protection payments that are so high. Instead of showing pride in their ability, as evidenced by their profits, they have been apologizing for their achievements and even denying them. Instead of affirming that their profits were earned by them and belong to them, they are conceding that the profits belong to the unions.
To producers, strikes have always been seen as disagreements over financial terms, in which the solution is a friendly compromise. To the unions, a strike is a crusade–a war between good and evil. That is why they use any means–including force–to win their crusade. And that is why they win.
It is time for producers and individual writers and actors to realize that the unions are in one sense correct: a strike is a war between good and evil. But it is the unions who are the side of evil. The producers, and those writers and actors who want to work with them, stand for freedom to pursue one’s individual, selfish happiness. The unions stand for force rationalized by nothing but envy.
Instead of denying or apologizing for their own greed, producers should be proud of it. They should declare that they do not produce for the purpose of making writers and actors rich any more than writers and actors work in order to make producers rich. (Imagine an actor saying, “I went into acting to give more choices and opportunities to producers.”) They should defy federal “mediators” and refuse to deal with the unions. They should demand of the new Republican Administration that labor laws be repealed and that the government protect their rights against union force. And, above all, they should appeal to writers and actors to defy the unions, not on grounds of short-term financial expedient or compromise, but on the grounds of long-term, self-interested, moral principle.
If 1,500 actors secretly defied the unions in last year’s strike, there must be many successful, “name” actors and writers–even in socialistic Hollywood–who would do the same if not for fear of union force. And there must be many more who have supported the unions only because they have not heard a moral argument for the right side. It is time to broadcast that argument.
If one “name” actor or writer stood up courageously against the unions on moral grounds, others would likely follow. Who will be first?
I am not a “name” artist, but I will be one of the first to state publicly, with my name in print and my photo available to put at the top of SAG’s blacklist wall, what many fellow artists have expressed privately: The unions be damned. I will accept work by my own choice, not theirs.
It is time for writers, actors, producers and all Americans to denounce union coercion, driven by envy, and learn a new, moral slogan: “Greed is good. Force is evil.”