Local 802 Gets SET to Confront Big Media

New Program Trains Entertainment Unions How to Mobilize

Volume CIV, No. 4April, 2004

Mikael Elsila

To fight back against the consolidation of power by media corporations, various entertainment unions in New York recently hired Cornell University to formulate a new training program. One purpose of the program is to give research and strategy tools to unions when they go up against big arts employers, like the League, Clear Channel or Disney.

On March 1, an 802 officer, two staff members and three executive board members attended one of the first versions of this training at Cornell. The session — dubbed the Strategic Education Training, or SET — is designed specifically for unions in the arts sector, like Local 802, the AFM, NABET (CWA), SAG, IATSE, Equity, AFTRA and the Writers’ Guild, all of whom funded Cornell’s research.

The SET curriculum gives facts and figures showing how media corporations are growing, while union density in the media industry slips.

A major example of this is Clear Channel, which owns big stakes in many radio station markets across the country. As reported in Allegro twice in the past year (and see story in this issue), Clear Channel is able to influence which artists can be heard, using its huge control of the airwaves. The corporation also owns venues and billboards.

AFTRA bumped up against Clear Channel last year during contract talks. A main issue was Clear Channel’s practice of using “virtual D.J.’s.” Otherwise called voice tracking, this corporate strategy involves taping announcers elsewhere and then broadcasting them to make them sound local.

Another example of union loss in the media sector is in the field of cable television, which is growing at a furious pace. At the same time, the cable field is almost completely nonunion.

Generally speaking, Cornell found that media companies, film studios, record labels and radio stations were all consolidating, so that more power is being held in the hands of fewer corporations.

The research also showed that giant companies like Disney are able to exert considerable power when they enter new fields, like producing Broadway plays. Disney is a relative newcomer to Broadway, but the company’s strength as a Broadway employer is growing.

One of the major lessons of the SET program is how media owners are able to divide and conquer unions. To put it another way, it seems that media owners have already formed their own “unions” (trade associations) that bargain collectively.

For instance, there are 350 movie studios that belong to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

On the other hand, unions like the AFM have to negotiate against AMPTP by itself. So do AFTRA, SAG, IATSE, the Teamsters, and other unions.

In effect, each individual union is up against 350 movie studios, which are negotiating as one force.

Here’s another example. Local 802 negotiates by itself with the League of American Theatres and Producers. But the League also negotiates separately with many different other unions (including Equity, IATSE and others). Therefore, the theatres who belong to the League are able to consolidate their power and speak with one voice, while each union must negotiate separately.

In a way, Local 802 and the other Broadway unions have already made an effort to level the playing field by forming COBUG — the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds. This kind of collective voice is one solution the SET program is trying to teach other unions.

Other solutions that the program proposes are:

  • More effective organizing.
  • Educated and mobilized membership.
  • More effective use of existing power, including political power and public relations.

Financial Vice President Jay Blumenthal and executive board members Tino Gagliardi, Mary Whitaker and John Babich attended the session, along with Organizing Director Joe Eisman and Joe Delia, assistant to the president.

For more information, call Local 802’s Organizing Department or the president’s office.