Why are Hollywood Unions Powerful?

Glen Whitman asks a good question, Why are unions so powerful in the entertainment industry when unions
are generally weak and in decline in most other sectors of the economy?  (Tyler asked the same question several years ago.)

I went to the family expert, my brother the movie producer and he had this to say:

…unlike in most other unionized industries, it’s the INDIVIDUAL members of the unions in the entertainment industry that the management / owners want to work with. For example, Tom Cruise is a member of SAG, (I use him as an obvious example, but every other known actor is as well) and if the studios and producers want to make a film with Mr Cruise, and we all do, we have to come to terms with SAG. Similarly, Steven Spielberg is a member of the DGA, same issue. Though writers are not household names, it’s the same issue, there are specific individuals who the studios want to be writing their TV shows and screenplays.  It  doesn’t matter if Joe or John or Mary is stacking the boxes, flipping the burgers or ringing the cash registers so management can easily hire a non-union member to do the same job, in the film business we need to work with specific individuals who happen to be union members. Thus the power of those (comparatively) few empowers them all.

Combine with a bit of Hollywood leftism and the fact that the big names don’t lose much from unions and you have a very powerful cartel.  About the only way to break the cartel would be to turn the big names into owners – this has been done a few times but the stars earn so much anyway that even then the incentives to deviate are small.  You Tube can give is a
parade of amateurs but as soon as the amateurs become stars this
model suggests that they will be co-opted into the union framework. 
Like my brother, I don’t see the power of Hollywood unions ending anytime soon. 


One could say much the same of professional athletes. It is interesting that in athletic strikes, issues like salary caps are often a key sticking point. One would think that these caps affect the stars the most, and that the median player would be more interested in additional positions, pensions, and the like.

Alex, your explanation is at least incomplete. Tom Cruise and Michael Jordan need a team to do their work (actually, Michael needed at least two teams) and their bargaining power depends on the type of team they need. You should compare them with any great writer or artist that does not need a team. You should also compare their teams with other teams that do not need a Tom Cruise or a Michael Jordan.

"For example, Tom Cruise is a member of SAG, (I use him as an obvious example, but every other known actor is as well) and if the studios and producers want to make a film with Mr Cruise, and we all do, we have to come to terms with SAG. Similarly, Steven Spielberg is a member of the DGA, same issue. "

Doesn't this also beg the question of why Tom Cruise is a member of SAG and Steven Spielberg is a member of the DGA?

Presumably, Tom Cruise can quit SAG, the studios hire him directly, and hire a bunch of non-union labor to work around him. Voila... more money for the studios and Tom Cruise.

Unless there is something else.

FYI, youtube has some kind of program where the "stars" actually do become owners.

Hollywood craft unions are strong because they're the main way through which workers get health insurance and other benefits. If you're, say, a movie sound technician you're likely to work for several different studios and production companies in the course of a year, never being with any one of them long enough to qualify for benefits even if you were a regular employee. As a result, the union is your employer and your benefits provider. There's little incentive for anyone to try to work outside the union structure.

The reason I see for the WGA being more powerful than other unions is that the WGA represents those that think for a living versus those that just show up and do an assigned task. The later can always be threatened with bringing in a robot to do their job (which should be done more often) while the WGA person can't easily be replaced. Sure the studios can try but the end product will suck. And the difference between sucking and not sucking is multiple millions of dollars so the WGA has a lot of leverage.

I think the time for the end of their power is much closer than you think. The technology to replace actors and directors is not so far off any longer.

Writing is harder to replace by computer, but one commenter above (Tom Kelly) already has pointed out a solution to this.

I'm sort of surprised, given the advent of digital, that there haven't been more genuine low-budget indie breakouts in film. The hurdles set up for another Kevin Smith seem less daunting. Although I suppose those hurdles were probably instrumental in Smith's success: creating both a compelling back story to push Clerks with and lowering audience expectations for the level of craft, thus making the amateurish elements endearing.

I don't know my economic terms, but there must be one that describes the propensity for audiences to prefer a product backed and hyped by the established system (even if the hype is that a particular film is not part of the system). And I wonder how much Clerks was helped from the publicity of originally receiving an X rating strictly for language.

But other recent attempts to make a new Coke, like Soderbergh and Cuban's same day release of Bubble in theaters and to TV and DVD, haven't really worked. And movies do better on DVD if they were released in theaters, even if they bombed.

It'll be interesting to see what computers bring. I am surprised that Beowulf does not look better. I don't notice a big difference (having only seen trailers) between how it looks and how the Final Fantasy movie from 2001 did. My memory may well be faulty and I have heard Beowulf is impressive in Imax 3-D.

"Where are they going to find good non-union labor to do this? Remember, in order to get work and gain the necessary experience you have to belong to a union, and it makes absolutely no sense to quit just to work on one project. Peter's comment at 10:17:40 gives some good reasons for this."

Story 1. My wife was a ward-drobe consultant until a few years ago, and still has friends in the industry. She convinced me (on a lark) to "act" in an episode of a "true-life" crime show as a background character. It was not a union job (which is why I was in it) - I got about $15 for four hours of wandering around the set dressed as a cop, plus some half way decent grub. But... I talked to all the main actors and several were union members. Much of the talk centered on a (then) upcoming blockbuster which they had appeared in. Long story short - union members are not supposed to appear in non-union pictures, but they seem to do it anyway.

Story 2. Following my breakthrough role described above, I announced my retirement. A friend of my wife's, an aspiring director/screenwriter, needed someone to play a small role in a film he's making. The part was of a raving lunatic, and naturally he thought of me. Despite my protestations, my adoring fan base insisted I come back once more. Now, I have no talent or skill or desire to appear in anything again, but I understand this is how most real actors/directors/screenwriters/camera people start. That's where the experience comes from.

DJB, you may be right if all teams are affected by the cap. If only the richest teams are bound by the cap, then lifting the cap won't mean a proportional increase for everyone. Removing a cap should skew the league's salary distribution further to the right. Weak players on poor teams won't get much of anything. Many players will make the league minimum salary no matter what the status of the cap. It seems to me that those players should be pushing for an increase in the league minimum, for additional roster spots, and for other things like better pensions.

My late father-in-law was president of the Chicago chapter of the United Federation of Musicians. In the 1940s, this had a very powerful union able to shut down all recording of music for 14 months during WWII, even when FDR asked them to call off the strike for the duration of the war because it was hurting morale of our soldiers, who couldn't get new records.

But, by the late 1980s, after the flood of young musicians who didn't see music as a job but as a path to being a rock star, it's power was restricted mostly to representing elite musicians in the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera, much like the professional baseball players union that does lots of good for big leaguers and very little for minor leaguers.

The technical union members in Hollywood are expensive (e.g., guys who build sets), but the members (with the exception of the despised Teamsters) are typically very good at their jobs. They know their trades, they hustle, and they have good espirit d'corps.

This isn't Detroit in 1973 and the UAW is dragging down American competitiveness vs. the rest of the world. Hollywood is crushing the competition around the world, so what's the problem?

This is a big huge non-issue. Movies will continue to get made because there is profit out there, and to the extent that the unions (and the studios) make stupid decisions affecting market share, independent filmmakers will arise, make names for themselves -- and the cycle will begin anew a la Matrix Revolutions, LOL.

Sounds fine by me. For all you aspiring screenwriters: let's do something with MacArthur and Castro in the same movie, shall we? That's what the people are yearning for.

Re: All of Lee A. Arnold's comments--

I will take the over.

To everyone else--

All Reality TV has writers. They are not covered by the WGA, nor are most animation writers, because the WGA doesn't want to cover them -- but they did want reality TV writers and animation writers to strike with them, despite not wanting them as part of the union.

You should all be reminded that the Writers GUILD of America, & the Directors GUILD of America, are guilds, not unions.

And if I'm not mistaken, none of the professional sports leagues allow active players to own or even to hold shares in the franchises. The NFL, for example, also bars corporate ownership of teams.

And the salary structure, at least in the big three American sports, is pretty much a reflection of numbers of players on teams. NBA: 12 players; MLB: 25; NFL: 44 (I think, may be a few more.) W/ the occasional exception of superstars w/ good agents & foolish owners.

Johnny Debacle, I don't understand "I will take the over."

As an engineer who designs equipment, I am constantly amazed that it is considered unfair to not get paid over and over for one's work. I design equipment and get paid a salary for doing so. When that equipment is used for decades, I get paid nothing extra. When new equipment is built using my design, I get paid nothing. Am I being exploited? Is this injust?

I don't have a problem with writers trying to get a better contract or more money, but this is hardly a case of justice vs. injustice. It's a case of two parties wanting to get the most money out of the deal.


Comments for this post are closed