By: Adam Leipzig
My first job in any creative pursuit was in IATSE Local 44. IATSE is a labor union comprised of people who work the below-the-line jobs in film and television. I was a very junior set dresser and my first assignment on my first day was to go to a department store to get make-up and beauty supplies that would sit on Glenda Jackson’s vanity table for a scene that would shoot after lunch. “Get back here in 45 minutes,” my new boss barked at me. I hustled to the store and picked out bottles of Borghese make-up because I liked their shape. It was the first creative decision I ever got paid for.
We’re in the post-Labor Day sprint to the end of the year, and I have been reflecting on how much labor, and labor unions in particular, are responsible for the creative culture we enjoy. They are essential to the creativity that shapes our lives, that entertains and enlightens us.
When I moved into theatre, I became a stage manager and joined Actors’ Equity. Equity, like IATSE, is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. As an Equity stage manager, I made sure the actors were treated fairly and according to the rules. Those rules covered safety, work hours, breaks, overall working conditions, and that I was treated fairly myself. On top of that, I got a standard salary that included benefits.
As I became a producer in the film business, I joined the Producers Guild, and I worked with professionals from diverse areas of creativity – actors in SAG-AFTRA, directors in the DGA, writers in the Writers Guild (which I also became a member of), musicians in the AFM, as well as editors, scenic designers, art directors, drivers, make-up artists, and very junior set dressers like I once was.
Today, I have also become a faculty member of the business school at UC Berkeley, and I’m a proud member of the American Federation of Teachers. Here I have learned that Teamsters don’t just drive the trucks on movie sets – they also represent the graduate student instructors who make sure our courses run smoothly.
Labor unions have made a profound and positive difference in all of our lives. In addition to the unions I mentioned, the creative industries are filled with guilds and organizations that may not have collective bargaining power, such as The Authors Guild, which nevertheless set voluntary standards for fair treatment and appropriate contracts, as well as supporting their members’ creative careers.
Today’s gig economy has benefits for creatives – flexibility of schedules, self-determination of projects – but it has a downside because many creative “gig” workers do not have union protections. This trend is gaining momentum. Gig “employment” represents 34% of the U.S. workforce and is estimated to reach 43% by 2020.
In our rush toward an uncertain future – a future in which creativity and vibrant culture should play a salutary and transformative role – it’s worth remembering the value of creative people in large numbers. Labor unions have protected and enhanced the world we live in and have granted creative people the opportunity to make a living.