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On, Wisonsin: Why SAG and AFTRA Were in Madison

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In the 2005 film “Hard Candy,” Ellen Page pretends to castrate Patrick Wilson, then convinces him to kill himself. That’s kind of like what Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is trying to do to public-employee unions in his home state, minus the pretending part. The unions, of course, would rather he not do that. On Saturday, more than 70,000 people gathered in the state capital of Madison to protest efforts by Walker and the Republican legislature to strip public-employee unions of their collective-bargaining rights.

The protesters were joined by supporters from dozens of private-sector unions, among them the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild, whose contingent was led by actors Bradley Whitford, Gabrielle Carteris, and Robert Newman. Both unions have been vocal in their support of Wisconsin employees.

“SAG is supporting Wisconsin workers because collective bargaining rights are essential for all workers,” said Nancy Fox, SAG’s national director of government relations and policy. “It’s also important to remember that when you see the erosion of anyone’s collective bargaining rights, you may be next.”

That “first they came” sentiment was echoed constantly by private-sector union officials in a flood of media coverage over the weekend. Though the pressures faced by public-sector unions are different from those faced by private-sector ones, the happenings in Wisconsin—as well as in Ohio and Indiana, where similar bills are moving forward—has lit a match under the labor movement. Governments in those states have gone beyond asking for the typical cost-saving cuts in pension and pay and instead have struck at something basic, which has resonated with unions across the spectrum. As Arizona Cardinals placekicker Jay Feely—his team’s NFL Players Association representative and, confoundingly, a political conservative who appears frequently on “The Sean Hannity Show”—told NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday”: “I don’t think you can take away collective bargaining to any union and not destroy the union, because collective bargaining is essential to what unions do.”

Of course, no one is threatening to take away the bargaining rights of placekickers, auto workers, or actors. Their employers don’t have to appeal to voters embittered by a crap economy and whipped into a fury by a media that likens teachers’ unions to al-Qaida. But concern that the neutering of public employees could be the first step toward an attack on private-sector workers appears to be real, and it appears to be growing. Actors would do well to remember at moments like this that their union cards are more than just tickets to the better craft-services table.

Pictured: Bradley Whitford enjoys a bratwurst with a fellow union worker in Madison, Wisc. (Photo courtesy of Screen Actors Guild)

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