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Strike Threat Looms Over 2012—Or Does It?

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Will a strike shut down the film and television industry next year? You would think so, if you read The New York Times last weekend. Citing statements made to members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees at a series of town hall–style meetings, the Times asserts that IATSE and allied craft unions covering behind-the-scenes personnel are facing a $500 million pension and health shortfall by 2015. The unions, which will bargain jointly on pension and health issues in the spring, are already tossing around tough talk about next year’s negotiations. “We’re going to be asking for a lot of money, lots of it,” the Times quotes IATSE president Matthew Loeb as telling Los Angeles Local 80 members in September.

Of course, it’s one thing to ask for lots of money and quite another to strike in order to get it. And the Times—which was unable to coerce any union or industry official into talking on the record and was able to get only one “person involved with the pension and health plans” to anonymously describe the shortfall as “staggering”—may be sounding the alarm prematurely. Reporter Michael Cieply admits early in his piece that “no one is talking of a strike yet.” He then goes on to raise the specters of the 2008 Writers Guild of America strike and the 1988 Teamsters union strike and discuss how a hypothetical work stoppage would affect production in Los Angeles and New York. (Hint: negatively.)

But should a reporter write about the industry-crippling effects of a strike when his reporting shows that no one in that industry is talking of one? If he wants to add dramatic flair to his story, sure. But when the reporter dismisses the possibility of a strike, then talks about the dismissed possibility at length, one gets the sense that he is both having and eating his cake.

The Times argues that the craft unions, with their premium health-care plans, are even more vulnerable than performers’ unions such as the Screen Actors Guild to the threats of rising health-care costs, floundering investments, and pressures brought on by the Affordable Care Act. But at no point does the Times float the idea that the craft unions may ask their members to give up or pay more for certain benefits. The SAG-Producers Pension and Health Plans trustees told their participants in October that they would have to do just that, raising minimum earnings requirements for the plans and increasing out-of-pocket maximums for hospital expenses. That announcement came less than a year after SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists negotiated a new TV-film contract that the unions touted as meant to shore up employer pension and health contributions.

That’s not to suggest that the craft unions should or will ask more of their members or that they should rule out a strike. The threat of a work stoppage, even unspoken, is an important piece of leverage in any labor negotiation. But implying that one is imminent when the reporting indicates otherwise isn’t particularly responsible.

Pictured: Writers on strike in 2008 (Photo: Getty Images)

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