by Rob Callahan
Recently, a new applicant for membership asked me, “After I join the Guild, can I still work non-union?” As most members know, there is a simple answer to her question — Yes. She probably won’t want to accept non-union employment if she has other options. Only when she is working under an IATSE contract will she receive employer contributions to her health and retirement plans and otherwise enjoy all the benefits of union work. But the Editors Guild won’t stop her from taking a non-union job.
Unlike some other unions in the industry — the actors and directors guilds, for example — ours does not prohibit members from working for non-signatory employers. Every now and again, someone will suggest that the Editors Guild implement such a policy, requiring members to forswear their right to work non-union jobs, but those proposals never seem to gain much traction. However much our members prefer working union whenever possible, few are keen on giving up their option of ever taking non-union gigs. That is especially the case for members working predominantly in those sectors of the industry (digital labs, post-production facilities, animation, documentaries, commercials, new media and unscripted television, etc.) where much or even most of the employment opportunities now remain non-union.
SAG-AFTRA refers to its prohibition on non-union employment as “Global Rule One,” a title that gestures to the policy’s importance to their organization. Indeed, before the merger of SAG and AFTRA, some SAG members who resisted the consolidation had argued that merging would undermine actors’ strength because it would result in the dilution of Global Rule One. (Global Rule One has, in fact, been retained by the merged organization.) Clearly, for those labor organizations that bar their members from non-union employment, such a proscription is central to how they define themselves.
Why, then, do different unions in the industry take such different approaches to the prospect of union members working non-union jobs, and what is the significance of this difference in terms of how we exercise solidarity? With Global Rule One, SAG-AFTRA’s strategy is to limit access to an elite pool of talent and to leverage such limitation to lend bargaining clout to all of its members.
Those members who complain about the lack of union work without taking any steps to unionize their non-signatory employers are effectively complicit in the problem they criticize.
A producer has to pay all of a show’s performers under the terms of a SAG-AFTRA contract if it wants to be able to cast a recognizable, let alone a bankable, star. The union’s strength thus derives from exclusivity; it functions as doorman for a coveted club. This gatekeeper function allows it to push back against the usual forces of supply and demand in a labor market with very few employment opportunities and a seemingly unlimited pool of job seekers.
Although the number of job seekers in post-production classifications generally exceeds the number of jobs available in post, the ratio is not nearly so lopsided as the ratio of aspiring actors to available roles. And, although the artistry and skills of our most accomplished members are much in demand and are key to the filmmaking process, there are no bankable editors — nor Foley artists, story analysts, etc. — in the way there are stars.
Our strength as a union therefore derives not from our ability to wall off employers’ access to a highly sought-after elite few craftspeople, but instead from our ability to unite folks working in all crafts and at all strata in post-production, as well as from our steadfast alliance with artists and technicians in all the IATSE-represented below-the-line crafts. We do not want to erect walls between members working union and non-members on non-union jobs, but instead to bring folks currently working non-union into our tent and under the coverage of union contracts. If a strategy of limiting where members can work is predicated upon strength through exclusivity, our union operates on a model of strength through inclusivity.
Such a strategy can only be effective, though, when union members working for non-union employers take responsibility for helping to expand the coverage of our contracts. Members working for non-signatory employers function as the Guild’s ambassadors to those workplaces, as well as our eyes and ears there in. Whether by explaining to non-member colleagues the advantages of Guild representation, discreetly placing a confidential call to the union’s organizing staff, or lending support to co-workers seeking to organize, members working non-union jobs have critical roles to play in bringing more of the industry’s work up to the standards our contracts set.
We do not want to erect walls between members working union and non-members on non-union jobs, but instead to bring folks currently working non-union into our tent and under the coverage of union contracts.
Often I hear members who work in predominantly non-union sectors of the industry — post facilities or reality TV, for example — complain that there aren’t enough union jobs. They’re absolutely right; we need more union jobs, especially in those areas of the industry in which we’ve historically had less presence. But those members who complain about the lack of union work without taking any steps to unionize their non-signatory employers are effectively complicit in the problem they criticize.
When a group of employees win a union contract at a previously non-union employer, folks tend to say the job was “flipped,” in the casual parlance of our industry. But the verb “flip” suggests that the action is instantaneous and easy, like tossing a coin or turning over a pancake.
In fact, forging the solidarity requisite to unionize an employer can be slow-going and difficult work; it can demand mettle forged with an anvil, not flipped with a spatula. Unionization happens neither spontaneously nor effortlessly. Most non-signatory employers will agree to sign a contract only after their employees — union members and non-members alike — have decided that a contract is worth the work of organizing.
To return to the prospective new member whose question prompted these reflections, here is my answer: Yes, as a member, you can accept non-union jobs. But with the freedom to accept non-union employment comes a responsibility to assist efforts to expand union employment. Contact an organizer about your non-union gig. Talk to co-workers about what makes union jobs better. If an organizing effort gets underway, come to meetings and sign a union authorization card when asked.
The freedom to take non-union work is good. But even better would be the freedom from needing to take non-union work. Only through members doing their part as Guild ambassadors to non-union workplaces will we achieve that more important freedom.