Hollywood Unions

Posted on May 15, 2011 by

If you work in L.A. in film, tv, radio, music, news, live or “new” media, there’s a very good chance you’re in a union. 

That’s true if you’re an actor, camera operator, broadcaster, hair stylist, electrician, costume designer, truck driver, writer, production manager, art director or stunt man or woman. 

It’s one of last industries in America with what’s called “union density,” in which collective bargaining determines wage scale, residuals, medical and pension coverage; and sets work rules and jurisdiction (who does what). 

Some members earn a fortune, others a decent living, many barely – or don’t – get by. 

I can’t think of another field, however, where people will pay to get into the union even before they have a chance to put their talent to work. 

And though there’s a mixed historical legacy to the Hollywood labor movement – anti-communism, race and gender discrimination, corruption and complicity – these unions have mostly cleaned house, adapted to changing conditions, and (to varying degrees) have learned to organize new work. 

Industry employers include some of the most powerful corporations on the planet.  But despite intense fights over nonunion and “runaway” productions, you don’t hear talk about getting rid of the unions. 

That’s partly because the unions help manage the “freelance” workforce.  It’s also that powerful people in the industry – labor and management – accept the system, flaws and all. 

More than 90 percent of private sector American workers are nonunion.  For most, the idea of making their job union never crosses their mind. 

But here in L.A., many workers know someone who’s “gotten in” to “the business” and one of its unions. 

And, over the past 20 years, both “above and below the line” unions have integrated into the region’s labor movement, recognizing the value of solidarity in organizing and contract campaigns, politics and strikes. 

It’s too bad most American workers – stuck in low wage jobs with marginal or no benefits – know virtually nothing about how this industry really operates; and – in particular – the role its unions play in sustaining the region’s middle class.

Comments (9)


  1. Ben says:

    Thanks for this posting, Lou. A very interesting book is “Hollywood Red” by Lester Cole. It is Cole’s autobiography; it is also a political statement. The author covers his struggle to get work as a screen writer (when he changed his name from Cohn to Cole he got work immediately), his activity as a union organizer, his experience during the McCarthy years including his year in prison which broke up his marriage, and his travels to other countries to see film makers at work outside the US, including, if I recall correctly, in the Central Asian republics of the USSR. I think it was published in the early 1980s.

  2. Joe Uehlein says:

    you should explain to your readers what “above and below the line” means.

    • Lou says:

      actors, writers and directors are above the line. those who work on the crew – camera operators, grips, set decorators – are below the line.

  3. jean damu says:

    I like this. Did you ever see Haskell Wexler’s excellent documentary on seep deprivation and overtime in the film industry? I used to work with Lester Cole at the old People’s World Newspaper in Berkeley.

  4. Funny how no mention is made about the contribution of the musicians to the film industry. AFM Local 47 has had a great deal to do with the making of some of our best films. How come nobody mentions music and musicians?

  5. Rod Bradley says:

    Unions are like businesses and people and nations. They have man complexities and textures and agendas. Guild unions tend toward exclusivity and lean toward monopolies and develop their entrenched bureaucracies. Unions in artistic crafts are always a double-edged sword as they, by nature, cannot give opportunity to merit. This is true even in less obviously craft unions — I have a friend in the mechanics union for the airlines, and he works, and many on his crew simply don’t. He fixes, they watch TV and play video games. The point being simply, that unions like corporations or governments can become corrupt and status quo and senile like any other human institution.

    I am totally for the little guy and the little guy needs the power of unions against the big time capitalistic interests. But I am also against false anything for anything’s sake and false idealization and burying the head in the sand re corruption. Union, corporate, governmental, personal.

    I remember as a young cameraman trying to crack IATSE and how hierarchical (and anti-democratic) it was.

    I was also a friend of Buddy Collette, an under sung union hero, who inter grated the black musicians union and the white musicians union back in the day and this had both a short term and long term positive effect. And I have little doubt that Buddy would’ve become far more recognized as a musician if he too had made the jazz passage to New York instead of remaining in Los Angeles, to do exactly that.

  6. Gavin says:

    One of the main reasons for the sucess in organized film/TV is the portability of benefits. Many workers have mutiple jobs in the same year (I once had 14 W2′s in one year). Without portability of benefits, these workers would never have qualified for any benefits.

    Remember, enteratinment is a weathy industry and wants/needs a highly skilled or specialized workforce.

    Also given the complexity of budgeting, the collective bargaining agreements give consistency and predicability to the process for the employers.

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