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Actors Are Not Bus Drivers: The Attack on Civil Servants

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Over at SAGWatch.net—the muckraking union-issues blog that totally isn’t run by David Browde—the anonymous “Editor” has been taking note of an increasingly hostile public attitude toward unions. “It looks like union bashing is coming into style once again,” the SAGWatch blogger wrote Jan. 2. That post connected criticism of Actors Equity Association’s response to Julie Taymor’s war against actors’ spines and skulls to a New York Times piece about how public-employee unions are coming under increasing fire. The next day, SAGWatch posted a link to another Times piece, this one about how Republican-dominated state governments want to change laws to undermine union power—an unforeseeable political trend that no doubt shook the Times newsroom at its foundation. SAGWatch titled the post “The Global War on Unions, Day 2.”

Though the latter Times piece concerned political attitudes toward unions in general, it focused primarily, as the earlier piece did exclusively, on public-sector labor. That cops and teachers have displaced cigar-chomping, orphan-kicking finance douchers as the most reviled of public enemies is indeed confounding. That that development relates directly to actors—and especially to criticism from Equity’s own members of the way the union has handled the “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” fiasco—is a suspect assertion. Attacks against public employees and their unions are tied as much to the desperate financial situations that most state governments find themselves in as they are to the rightward shift in last fall’s election. In fact, in places like California and New York, Democratic governors are the ones calling for state employees to pay for austerity measures.

What the public-sector unions and the performers’ unions do share is concern for the future health of their pension plans. “Union chiefs, who sometimes persuaded members to take pension sweeteners in lieu of raises, are loath to surrender ground,” Michael Powell wrote in one of the two Times pieces. American Federation of Television and Radio Artists president Roberta Reardon stressed the importance of securing her own union’s pension fund in her interview in this week’s issue of Back Stage.

“I have not spoken to anybody in the labor movement who has not had the same experience,” Reardon said. “You are now going to the table bargaining more for contributions for health and retirement than for wage increases, and that’s a very difficult place to be.”

That AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild were able to secure significant gains in pension-and-health contributions in their new scripted network prime-time and TV-theatrical contracts illustrates the difference between the challenges faced by the performers’ unions and those faced by public employees. While wringing money from employers is always difficult, no matter who those employers are, producers aren’t facing unprecedented budget deficits and aren’t beholden to a pitchfork-wielding, increasingly conservative electorate.

Photo: Martin de la Iglesia

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