Labor Day, Unions and Me

15 09 2010

It was Labor Day in the United States a few Mondays ago and this seems like a natural time for me to talk about what film unions have done in the scope of my career.

I remember, one day when I was working as an assistant editor on a documentary that was struggling to meet a crazy and imminent deadline, its producer pulled me aside and complained that the overtime pay that I was going to make working that weekend was going to make it difficult for his company to turn a profit on the program. Now, let’s leave aside the reality that he was probably making about 25 times what I was making on the film. And let’s also leave aside the reality that I didn’t create his schedule or his lateness with “locking the picture” (this means finishing the editing so you can hand it over to the sound editing team and the composer).

Nope, what galled me about his attitude was that he felt that he had every right to suck away my weekend so that he could finish his film. Without so much as a thank you.

Late nights, weekend work, and crazed deadlines are (unfortunately) a reality in the film business. There never seems to be enough money to do a film right, until there’s not enough time to do it at all. And then all of the stops are pulled out — mixing stages are kept open on Saturday and Sundays, extra visual effects teams are added, and more studio executives tend to show up at all hours to “help solve problems.”

So I’m not complaining about the hours and the overtime. That’s just a part of life.

What I do object to — then and now — is that this producer felt that we should be invested enough in that film to add extra work into the project without any extra compensation whatsoever.  It wasn’t in my original contract discussions with him, and it had never occurred to him to mention it until the day before that weekend.

On that film, however, we had a union contract and I was able to tell him — “If you want to take away my weekend, you can. But that’s why the extra overtime pay is called ‘penalty time.’”  On a film without a contract, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I’m not blind.  I know that large unions can become as oppressive as large companies. I also have heard the cliché of on-set regulations so restrictive that tables couldn’t be moved because the crew was waiting for a grip to come back from the bathroom.  I’ve heard about those situations, but I’ve never actually been on a film like that. But I’m sure they exist — on very rare occasions. On most sets, everybody takes pride in pitching in to help — so long as it doesn’t take away from their own job (which is a very crucial distinction to anyone trying to make a deadline).

But I know that the constant struggle between those who get paid and those who pay us is often won by the people with the most clout, and that is rarely the workers. Most of us are normal people who are trying to make enough money to support families and take them out to eat once every few weeks or so. (There’s actually a great blog, written by a woman who writes under the pen name Peggy Archer, called Totally Unauthorized, which documents her life  as a set lighting technician, and it’s a great read for everyone who thinks that filmmaking is all about glamour and lush parties.) If we often feel that we could use some help, every now and then, at getting a tiny bit more leverage in that struggle, who can blame us?

So, I’ve always been a fan of unions, even when they get too excessive. There are people on both coasts who felt a few years ago, for instance, that the Screen Actors Guild has gotten entirely too caught up in its own politics to see the overall industry picture. They feel that SAG would rather bring everyone else in the industry down with them, in order to make their own points. Frankly, I am not one of those people, but that’s not really my point at all. My point is that the excesses of a union are usually a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the excesses of the studios.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, it’s helpful to remember that film unions are neither pro-film or anti-film. They were formed originally to be pro-people-who-work-in-film.

For all of you who want to be good editors and good filmmakers, we want to ally ourselves with good producers, good studio people and good and healthy business practices. And, sometimes, a little help from our unions is vastly appreciated.

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One side note here and it’s going to be a bit of a rant.  My apologies. If ranting is too much for you today, please skip the rest of this post and return next time.  Please.

On every film that I’ve worked on, I got completely involved and treated the film as if it was my own.  I got invested in more than just the editing of the film, but its very creation.  So, I’m not stepping back from involvement in a film. But the reality is that those films were never my films! There is no way that I could possibly reap the benefits of the great successes in the same emotional ownership way as the producer, director, writer and actors. I was as much a part of the filmmaking process as most of them, but they weren’t my films.

It’s always amused me that the producers or directors on the lowest budgeted films, were often the ones who expected every single person on the film to give as much sweat, blood and overtime as they did. And while I’ve seen them thank their editors, cinematographers, production designers etc. at the premieres, I never saw them hand them an equal amount of credit as they took for themselves (justifiably, by the way — they were usually there for years before a single frame rolled through the film cameras).

I understand why it’s difficult for them to believe that not everyone thinks that their films are the most incredible working and creative opportunity, but it just ain’t so.  We need our directors and producers to be the most passionate members of the team. They lead us. But the other side of the coin for this is that our desire to head home to our families might be a little stronger than theirs at the end of every day.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t give 150%. It just means that we can’t give the 1,000% that they are expected (and want) to give.

And that’s why having a union to protect us from that 1,000% level of commitment is a great thing for the Rest of Us.

Rant over.  We now return you to your lives, which are already in progress.

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Oh, okay, I lied.  One more note.

After I finished the above entry, I was surfing around the Web (Hmmm, “surfing”.  Does anyone say that anymore?) and I reading Peggy Archer’s blog I was talking about above, “Totally Unauthorized.” She has a rather depressing, but realistic and open, discussion about workers in the film craft and how they’ve been affected by the slowdown in Los Angeles film production. I don’t recommend reading it if you are just starting out in the industry because 1) it’s depressing and 2) you will be moving up in a very different world than Peggy and myself did. Your work outlook will be different, and the way in which you get and keep work will also be different.  This is a Very Good Thing, and you should pursue that path. And then you will definitely survive.

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3 responses to “Labor Day, Unions and Me”

15 09 2010
SexMahoney (07:27:09) :

As a non-Union media employee who works a lot of unpaid overtime, this is a subject that I find infinitely interesting.

As a general rule, I only charge my clients overtime if they ask me to work longer hours for some reason. If the job they tasked me with completing in a certain time frame isn’t finished at the end of that time, I won’t charge them for my failure to deliver even if that failure isn’t necessarily my fault (copy coming in later than expected).

If it is more lucrative to maintain a good relationship with a perennially deep pocketed client, working extra hours without overtime demonstrates your commitment to helping your client achieve their goals. If there’s no future there, there may not be any harm in grabbing as much cash as you can while the grabbing’s good.

In the case of my current job, I’m banking that what overtime money I will lose out on in the short term will translate to greater earnings at a higher salary in a permanent position.

It’s not that I don’t like extra money, but I genuinely enjoy my work and sticking to this ethos keeps departmental costs low while motivating me to finish things in a timely fashion.

On the subject of labor unions: Unions are essential in industries prone to exploitation.

20 10 2010
Linus (08:03:32) :

Great article, Norm! I am starting to agree with you!

20 10 2010
Norman (16:01:58) :

Call me a Child of the Sixties (I may even thank you) but I love the idea of unions, just as I love the idea of companies — so long as they don’t get too big and autocratic. Just like the way the USA tricameral system is set up — we need checks and balances.

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