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Hollywood a Rustbelt? 

Unions fear job loss — and argue among themselves about how to stop it

Wednesday, Nov 24 1999
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Photo by David Bacon

Hollywood a rustbelt?

That’s what some studio workers are beginning to call it. Clinton administration trade policies are coming home to Los Angeles with a vengeance, they claim, affecting workers far removed from the auto and steel industries. According to Michael Everett of the Hollywood Fair Trade Campaign, even the city’s crown jewel, the motion-picture industry itself, is on the chopping block.

"Our own political leaders have arranged a system of trade agreements designed to enhance corporate profits by shipping our jobs offshore," Everett says. "In exchange for NAFTA-sanctioned subsidies from Canada and elsewhere, the studios have turned their backs on their own community and have engaged in the wholesale destruction of the Hollywood jobs base."

Earlier this month, Everett and other Hollywood union activists organized demonstrations, supported by the L.A. County labor federation, during a dinner, hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America at Sony Studios’ Rita Hayworth Dining Room, honoring Commerce Secretary William Daley and his "Free Trade Education Tour." Daley was greeted by dozens of boisterous protesters from various studio unions, including International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees locals representing sound technicians, camera operators, and workers in props, set lighting and wardrobe, respectively. Supporters came from other unions as well, including the longshoremen, communications workers, and state, county and municipal employees.

The jobs aren’t going only to Canada, say the studio unions. 20th Century Fox made Titanic in a maquiladora in Rosarito, 60 miles south of the border. After production was over, the independent Mexican union that represented workers there was forced out by government support for a more conservative union, more friendly to foreign companies.

There’s not much disagreement among U.S. unions nationally that Hollywood has a problem, or that the problem is shared with millions of other workers in dozens of industries in the rest of the country and the world. No one disputes that trade policies have a profound effect on jobs. But as thousands of union members prepare to go to Seattle, to demonstrate in the streets outside of possibly the most important set of trade negotiations this century, there is increasingly bitter disagreement in labor over what it will take to solve the problem, or even who the enemy is.

Unions are mobilizing their members to protest the negotiations of the World Trade Organization, a body set up five years ago to enforce the increasing number of free-trade agreements that set the rules for the global economy. Those rules, unions say, are negotiated by governments to increase the ability of multinational corporations to earn profits around the world.

Ron Judd, head of Seattle’s central labor council, predicts that as many as 50,000 labor, social-justice and community activists will pour into the city’s streets as the WTO meeting begins on November 30. "This demonstration is intended to send a message," he says, "not just to this administration but to all administrations around the world, that the rules as they’re written do not work for workers and communities, and that they undermine environmental and health standards. Something has to change."

The AFL-CIO believes that future trade agreements can be written in such a way that they protect workers’ rights and the environment, much as the existing agreements protect corporate profits. The union federation is calling on the WTO to incorporate several international labor conventions into the text of future treaties. These conventions, written by the International Labor Organization (ILO), would guarantee workers everywhere the right to organize unions and to bargain collectively with employers, and would restrict child labor, prohibit forced labor and outlaw discrimination. They would be enforced by the WTO, which already uses the threat of vast financial consequences against governments that violate existing trade rules.

Juan Somavía, the ILO’s director-general, says his organization "is putting in place the social ground rules of the global economy." Even Somavía, however, doesn’t believe the conventions are a cure-all. "There’s no vaccination against the ills of work," he admits. Barbara Shailor, who heads the AFL-CIO’s international-affairs department, says that incorporating protections for workers into trade agreements will protect their rights. She compares it to the effort at the turn of the century to adopt national laws in the U.S. to enforce fair labor standards such as the minimum wage and the eight-hour day.

"We have to create the political will to get them into [trade] agreements in an enforceable fashion," she asserts. "That’s the challenge we face. If we didn’t believe it was possible, I don’t know why we’d be doing all this mobilizing. As you know, there are rules for capital that are successfully incorporated into these agreements, and this is the time and the place to get them for labor."

A number of unions inside the AFL-CIO, however, don’t think it’s possible to make the WTO enforce workers’ rights. "It’s like asking the fox to guard the henhouse," says Brian McWilliams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He calls Shailor’s position "an honorable thing to do," but says "it’s not good enough. Nor will it answer the exploitation of workers. There has to be another mechanism, outside the WTO, to police workers’ rights worldwide."

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