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November 19, 2007

Unions: Still Mattering

This post of Megan's strikes me as quite weird. " My sense," she writes, "is that...unions are often the most aggressive right before they expire." Damn dude. Read about Walter Reuther. Back when unions were ascendant, the organizers were getting the shit beat out of them, even getting murdered. And they kept coming. Dignity means something. Indeed, on some level, it means almost everything.

Which is why Megan doesn't get the Writer's Strike. She surveys the scene, judges the industry in decline, decides there's a narrowing pool of profits from which workers can extract gains, and can't figure out why anyone bothers. Forgetting whether the economic analysis is correct (I don't think it is, and, in any case, don't imagine it relevant to the writer's demands, which are for a percentage of a new revenue stream), she's treating individuals too much like rational economic actors, and not enough like human beings. People care about fairness, too. About being paid appropriately for their work and being treated with respect and dignity. And when the bosses are transparently trying to fuck with them, they want to stand against it. When Megan thinks of unions, she thinks of corrupt labor bosses extracting the maximum dues. But that's not what unions are. Unions are this guy:

Till you understand him, you don't understand unions.

November 19, 2007 in Labor | Permalink


why should we forget about whether the economic analysis is correct? The studios want to rip off the writers. Yes, the income stream isn't there yet but it will be there, sooner than we know. Internet broadcasting is going to be bigger than over-the-air or cable, and the studios don't want writers to share in the profits. That's why they are on strike, not because of some sort of romantic sense of dignity.

Posted by: bloix | Nov 19, 2007 12:41:04 AM

Naturally Megan doesn't get it. She doesn't believe in the self-ownership of labor any time after the instant you ever sign a contract or otherwise agree to work for someone else. From that point on, management's wishes ought to (in McCardleville) rein supreme. The idea that if something is generating ever greater revenue for the company in a new venue, those who made it should get a piece of the action just as if it were an old existing venue, is altogether alien to her.

In other news, experts report that water remains wet.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Nov 19, 2007 3:33:39 AM

"I find it interesting that the union is getting more militant just as their bargaining position gets weaker."

That's just bizarre; their bargaining position is really fairly good at this point, with the TV season unexpectedly shut down, the film calendar for 2008 and 2009 already being affected, and plans to go back to the table after Thanksgiving. It's like... she's not even reading the stories about what's happening. And what sort of blogger does that? ... oh wait...

In a macro sense, she may be right that there's a longer term problem with filmed entertainment, but that kind of doomsaying - which is really rather vague and nonspecific - also doesn't argue for the decline of unions as much as it does the implosion of the content providers. It would still be the case - especially for people with a clear, specialized skill, like writing - that workers, banded together, would be more effective in bargaining with employers.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 19, 2007 7:26:17 AM

I don't know if there's a blogger union or not, but if McArdle ever goes on strike, I promise not to hold it against anyone who becomes a scab...

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Nov 19, 2007 8:55:21 AM

Where's that NateO dude to talk about how WalMart is SOOOO AWESUM?

Posted by: El Cid | Nov 19, 2007 9:29:08 AM

Wow...Sometimes there just isn't anything else that needs to be said.Sometimes,no,all the time, when you know that you speak the truth,there is no need for spin, or debate, or consternation of the other sides "talking points". This post epitomizes one of those times,and its times like these that should crystallize to liberals and progressives the understanding that WE ARE RIGHT AND THEY ARE WRONG! We don't need to "spin", or equivocate. Just speak the truth loudly and consistently and I know that the vast majority of Americans will agree and follow us.So,patton,and floccina,and pimphand,and nate o,I challenge you to refute what I have just said is not the truth and that I as a liberal, am right in what I have just stated.

Posted by: onlinesavant | Nov 19, 2007 10:21:39 AM

Oh I think I understand unions. Their basic message is: "I don't give a damn where the money came from to build this business, and I deserve more than the market would otherwise pay me to put a screw and a nut together."

Did I get that about right?

I'm not denigrating workers; every bit of work is noble. In the case of the writers, they (and very few others) were unable to foresee the digital revolution and got themselves a contract that was rooted in the past and not the future. Who's willing to bet they'll guess wrong again?

Posted by: Michael W | Nov 19, 2007 10:33:59 AM

Michael is correct.

I wonder how the whole of France feels about unions now that rail transportation has ground to a halt stranding countless? How much has this non-government entity cost the taxpayers and the economy in general? All of that to secure an agenda for a small portion of the population.


Posted by: El viajero | Nov 19, 2007 11:36:44 AM

Michael, you are denigrating workers, or at least any worker with the brains and organization to organize to get a better stake in the game. The basic message of a union is that a worker is better and of more value than a cog in a machine, and the realization that 'where the money came from to build this business' was in part, and usually the greatest part, from the efforts of the workers.

Posted by: Persia | Nov 19, 2007 11:37:31 AM

Shouldn't the Atlas Shrugged set be sympathetic to the idea that the writers are creators of a unique product for which their natural abilities are not being appropriately compensated? I mean, the only explanation for this disparity is that libertarian economic thought it merely an attempt to put a spitshine on simple greed, but that's just too crazy to be possible, right?

Posted by: August J. Pollak | Nov 19, 2007 11:47:19 AM

Michael, that's why contracts come up for renewal and get renegotiated.

Oh I think I understand unions. Their basic message is

Actually, their basic message is: we can leverage our power to extract the value that we are worth on the market.

And, actually, I don't see why anyone should have any care about where the money came from to "build" a business. An investor is taking a risk. That deserves no respect in and of itself if he is going to attempt to fleece his workers out of an intellectual property revenue stream that wouldn't exist without those very writers.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 19, 2007 11:49:59 AM

Their basic message is: "I don't give a damn where the money came from to build this business

The money came from the labor of other workers.

and I deserve more than the market would otherwise pay me to put a screw and a nut together

Damn straight.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 19, 2007 11:57:39 AM

"Who's willing to bet they'll guess wrong again?"

You do realize that's the whole point of the strike right? They aren't cutting out in the middle of a contract, they're arguing over a new contract.

Posted by: mad6798j | Nov 19, 2007 12:06:53 PM

I am curious, actually, why the anti-union posters here believe that contracts should not be renegotiated and why workers should decide to work without a contract they deem acceptable.

I distinctly remember when accepting jobs that first we agreed on a contract and then I started working for the employer. Any work done without a contract would be purely an act of goodwill on my part. If, when a contract came up for renewal, I felt that I could not get the terms I wanted on a new contract, it would only make sense for me to stop working until the contract issue could be resolved. Continuing to work when the contract terms you want are not in place is only signalling to the employer that the terms are not as important as you claimed they were in your negotiations.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 19, 2007 12:09:18 PM

"I deserve more than the market would otherwise pay me"

I have yet to meet a worker who was paid by "the market." Workers work for employers. Employers would prefer to bargain with workers one at a time. Unions allow workers to bargain as a group. The result is a wage set by collective bargaining - i.e., a market mechanism, although not the one you personally would prefer.

Posted by: Bloix | Nov 19, 2007 1:51:18 PM

Tryo I agree with you completely, but Bloix gets it all wrong. When an employer negotiates with you one-on-one, you use the information you have about what other employers have offered (if you don't do the research on who gets paid what, then you deserve to get stiffed), and the employer uses the information it has about pay for other employees with similar skill sets and its estimate about how much you will contribute to the bottom-line.

This is called being paid "by the market". If you don't like the offer then you go elsewhere (presuming you have a marketable skill).

Collective bargaining does consolidate information for the employers and perhaps gives the bargainer more and better information but it also does away with any advantage superior workers might have in extracting even bigger shares by ensuring that the workers that contribute little get just the same. Love it or hate it, that's the deal.

Tyro, again, you're correct. If you don't like the contract then you go work for someone else....well, of course, in the case of the writer's strike they've promised to 'blacklist' anyone willing to work and cross the picket line thus essentially putting their career at an end (at least as a writer). Doesn't seem very democratic to me.

Posted by: Michael W | Nov 19, 2007 2:34:53 PM

I just wish thy'd put down their signs and get off the streets to BLOG about their struggles I mean, how can Ezra and his lazy gen y kids be expected to empathize?

Posted by: christian | Nov 19, 2007 2:49:38 PM

Michael, I am inclined to agree with Bloix-- what you are complaining about is that the market mechanism people are holding out for more value via a market mechanism that you would prefer, for aesthetic reasons, that they not use.

This is called being paid "by the market". If you don't like the offer then you go elsewhere

Once again, my paychecks are not signed by "the market." If my employer didn't want to pay the wages he/she wanted to pay, he/she could have a nice career in restaurant management. However, my employer, like the hollywood producers, are apparently willing to put up with the possibility of striking workers who negotiate much harder than line-cooks because they prefer doing what they are doing.

Collective bargaining ... does away with any advantage superior workers might have in extracting even bigger shares by ensuring that the workers that contribute little get just the same.

The writer's guild works differently than that. Mostly it's a method for ensuring standards, stability, giving people access to health insurance, and coming up with methods for protecting their intellectual property rights in a way that can only be done by forcing one large institution to negotiate with another large institution.

Love it or hate it, that's the deal

What you mean is, "That's the market."

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 19, 2007 2:55:00 PM

I have no gripe about collective bargaining as a means to consolidate information on behalf of a group of workers who have agreed to give up their individual collective right to bargain. Those workers are free to do so.

Where I get a little prickly is in the implied and real threats to workers who agree to work without signing away their own bargaining rights (e.g. joining the union).

If the skills of those in the guild are so superior to those who would desire to work without membership in the guild then what's the worry? Those not in the guild would be universally fired when the strike is over.

I reject the ability of anyone to restrict the right to work. They represent a form of tyranny I don't believe should be part of a democracy. It's definitely not part of the market mechanism.

Posted by: Michael W | Nov 19, 2007 3:05:06 PM

Michael, I find it rather morally cowardly of you to reserve your unhinged outrage at the writers for the supposed "threats" you claim they made. Hollywood is the place that made the phrase, "You'll never work again in this town!" famous.

Honestly, I don't think you ever had a problem with blackballing or that sort of thing before, and you're just raising the issue now because you dislike unions on principle.

It is quite clear that you simply don't like the aesthetic method of collective bargaining because you think that employers have some intrinsic "respect" they deserve for coming up with the starting capital however many decades ago. That is a form of anti-market irrationalism. And it is a necessity for unions to find the new, growing revenue streams and have their compensation tied to those, rather than ramain slavishly devoted to the shrinking ones that the employers would rather they have.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 19, 2007 3:17:01 PM

Tryo - on the contrary, I've been quite consistent in my beliefs for several decades now..of course I can't prove it so you'll go on continuing to believe whatever you just made up.
I'm not outraged at the writers, but I am outraged at the ability of their leadership to threaten others for their desire to work.
Blackballing in all its forms is just more discrimination based on membership and association. Chew on that.
Collective bargaining is fine as long as it doesn't disenfranchise others.
Of course there are some employers that are taking their capital elsewhere and that's fine..that's the market speaking again. I have no problem with that either. Without the ability to innovate we'd still be employing buggy whip makers and reading by the light of whale oil lanterns.
The writers are free to bargain for whatever they wish. I believe my original assertion is their devotion to a collective contract proved to be a disaster as it was tied to the technology of the day with no ability to see into the future and my believe that they'll do it again.

Posted by: Michael W | Nov 19, 2007 3:32:18 PM

Chew on this. As your thesis is that the writers created a disaster for themselves because they chose to collectively bargain. So I am to assume that you are a "conservative" and as such, it is your belief that it is every man or woman for themselves. Now, based on your thesis, my assertion is that in this particular iteration, with that platform as the norm, then any particular writer would have to negotiate and/or challenge any given studio for a new contract for terms favorable to them. So the question is, does that really make sense? Would it make sense for a auto factory worker to negotiate singularly for a new contract with a car company when his/her line worker's interest are one and the same? I could generate other hypotheticals based on this platform, but you get the gist.I could be wrong, but this is how I understand your central presentation, and I seek clarification. "Of course they are some companies that take their capital elsewhere and that's fine...that's the market speaking again".You know the definition of an idealogue is someone who has a destination, and fits the facts to fall under that rubric. So as my belief that you Michael are an idealogue, you will find any given part of a situation and either highlight it or downplay it to help get to said destination. But I have some additional questions that are specific to this discussion about collective bargaining and who has the right to do so. If it is your belief that collective bargaining is fine as long as it does not disenfrachise others, but it is is my inference that you believe that the writer's union is disenfrancising the studios, then how is this process occuring? How are the writers disenfrancising the studios, when in effect, the studios hold the majority of the cards. The writers, regardless of the situation have to operate within the framework of the studio structure. Specifically, the writers are asking for more revenue from "their" work on the internet, but is essentially, merely distributed by the studios. Is it your belief that the writers should get no to little share of the revenue from the exploitation of this new platform simply, because they are the workers which drive the enterprise, and don't control the distribution of said work because they did'nt put up capital to build the distribution structure at the front end? Just curious. I have many more questions about your true motivations, but I'll stop here for now.

Posted by: onlinesavant | Nov 19, 2007 4:36:41 PM

Where I get a little prickly is in the implied and real threats to workers who agree to work without signing away their own bargaining rights (e.g. joining the union).


In some states this has become such an issue that "right-to-work" laws were passed to protect the workers from the bullying of the union and its members. It's a real problem.

Posted by: El viajero | Nov 19, 2007 5:51:15 PM

El Cid, so comforting to know out of all that talk all you managed to read was the name of a company, your ability to avoid the discussion is unmatched. I do take solace in knowing I affect you to this degree.

Onlinesavant, if I refute a not truth am I supporting it? We’ll all know my grammar ain’t the best and I have no idea what your asking me to respond to. I can’t refute your opinion as you expressed it, I assume it is really your opinion, if you’re asking me to refute the post I will gladly partially refute it.

I full heartedly believe Unions where vital to the country developing into the greatest nation on earth. Some of those Unions have outlived their usefulness. Some industries today are in great need of a Union movement. Further some industries need their Unions to worry more about the workers and less about their own power and politics. I think Unions could be an incredible vehicle to solve some of our social ills if they would step up and do it.

Just some points off the top of the head;

It wasn’t long before organizers where beating the shit out of those that didn’t sign up and also murdering people. Are only unionized workers allowed to keep their dignity and health? Read any history of Vegas, teamsters, or ports for more info.

I don’t understand the comment “But that’s not what unions are.” Um yes that’s exactly what a large number of Unions where/are, he makes it sound like Hoffa was some imaginary character that didn’t exist. I think that is where a lot of the rub comes from, the Left’s refusal to admit that Unions are fallible, they have committed sins equal to and exceeding that of corporations.

If I wanted to make a grand stand for Unions the Writers Guild is not my battle of choice. There are millions of workers or have it far worse them writers that get zero attention or support. If your so pro union walk the line with someone that really needs it. For disclosure I would be perfectly happy if the writers, actors, and who ever else is turning out the crap Hollywood produces all went on strike and never came back. Network TV has at most 4 shows worth watching and I only care for 1-2 American movies a year.

I would much prefer to debate rather the collective spoilage of Hollywood as illustrated by this petty strike is why the content sucks. I would take a huge chance and assume the movies I like are not written by guilded writers and everyone involved is making a fraction of what these writers are already taking home. For reference the movies I watch are along the lines of “City of God”, “Whale Rider”, “Spring, Summer, Fall…spring”, “Bird People of China”, “Russian Ark”, and “Sixteen”. Maybe if they struggled a little more they would produce a better product?

I like Hollywood like I want Washington, at am impass and producing nothing. Less "work" they do out there the better.

Posted by: Nate O | Nov 19, 2007 6:20:57 PM

Wow, really shocked to see the tall tales of the big bad unions beating the shit out of the poor non-union workers, churned out yet again. As Ezra has posted many times in the past, the people with the really long history of intimidation and violence against workers are, wouldn't you know it, management, the very second they catch wind of any attempt to organize. The endless parade of internet jackoffs who just line up to lick the corporate boots is really astounding.

Posted by: tps12 | Nov 19, 2007 10:05:33 PM

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