Forging a path through crisis
by Rob Callahan
We, like all the fortunate ones, have been spending a lot of time at home.
The show must go on, we have heard, repeatedly, for as long as we can remember. But the shows no longer go on.
Our IATSE kin who work in live theater or in production have long been idled. The loss of employment has been devastating. Some Local 700 members continue to work, and many of the crafts our Guild represents better lend themselves to work-from-home arrangements, relative to the occupations represented by our sister locals. But huge numbers of Editors Guild members have lost work, too, and what post-production work remains will run out before long if production crews cannot resume shooting — and, as of this writing in early spring, they largely cannot due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And of course this is taking place in the broader context of millions upon millions losing their jobs throughout our economy. So one way or another, we who are lucky enough to be healthy and out of danger are spending a lot of time at home.
We have been spending so much time sheltering in the circumscribed confines of our domestic spheres that the calendar has begun to dilate and warp, the familiar signposts of egress and ingress having fallen into disuse. The typical, tidal rhythms defining our weekdays — rush hour commute to the job, rush hour commute back home — have been supplanted by a ceaseless tattoo of hand-washings. What day of the week is it again?
This curious timelessness in which we now reside seems best understood not via clocks or calendars, but in reference to Kubrick pictures: the eerie, under-lit cloister of an alien hotel room, the hermitage of a snowbound resort. Will this era of claustrophobic sequestration ultimately devolve into a labyrinth of icy violence or blossom into the conception of an unfathomable star child?
Alas, we’ve seen enough of this movie to know, if not how it ends, at least what happens next. The anomalous and anxious times in which I pen this piece are not about to get better anytime very soon. Indeed, every indication from the epidemiologists makes clear that by the time this column is published some weeks hence, things will be far bleaker. Money will be a lot tighter, of course, for those missing paychecks. And far too many of us and our neighbors will fall ill, some to suffer greatly, some never to recover. We will perhaps recall this moment through a veil of rueful nostalgia, as days of comparative normalcy before our collapse into grim chaos, as an interregnum before a cruel reign. We might come to look wistfully upon those weeks when we worried so much about the availability of toilet paper.
As we face down these frightening times and try to devise ways of safely containing ourselves within our shelters without withdrawing from our communities and our world, we’ve been giving a lot of thought to material provisions: paper products, canned goods, shelf-stable staples that will allow us to minimize excursions to the market. But we need to think, too, about the mental provisions that will sustain us through this catastrophe and will serve us best in that future period of restoration once we eventually emerge from our crisis cocoons.
If your family is like mine, you’ve likely been doubling down on comfort food of late. There’s a time for food — and for thought — that’s fresh, subtle, and sophisticated. But there’s also a time — times such as these — to tear open a package of something highly-processed and be instantly rewarded with a precisely engineered admixture of salty, savory, and sweet, one calculated to meet immediate needs and to evoke a sense of familiar security. Now that we’re all doomsday preppers, we might find in maxims, truisms, and even clichés the same qualities we’ve come to prize in canned goods: they’re pre-packaged, they serve utilitarian functions, and they have long shelf lives.
In the context of organizing — of mustering solidarity to overcome isolation, forging power to overcome helplessness — what maxims will fortify us now? And a perhaps equally urgent question: what mental provisions have outlived their expiration dates, and must be discarded?
On that latter question first, let us examine for a moment that shopworn cliché I alluded to earlier, the precept that “The show must go on.” Wilfred Granville’s “Dictionary of Theatrical Terms” refers to it as “The traditional slogan of the troupers,” and the “Oxford English Dictionary” suggests that it had entered common currency by at least the mid-nineteenth century. Granville explains that “Whatever tragedy may enter the life of a player, or however ill he may feel, it is a point of honour not to let the other players down by deserting them when no understudy is available.” (Witness the sleight of hand that definition effects, whereby an obligation to the enterprise of the show is transformed into an obligation to one’s co-workers.)
Although “The show must go on” describes an ethos attributed specifically to the entertainment industry, it has long been used figuratively to assert the compulsion to persevere with any plans or routines in the face of disruptive misfortune. Whether “the show” literally refers to an exhibition for entertainment or figuratively refers to whatever other enterprise, the underlying message is much the same: we will proceed with business as usual, all horrors and grief notwithstanding.
Let this be among the bromides we discard, definitively and permanently. Indeed, the current shutdown of the entertainment industry has rendered obvious what we perhaps ought to have long suspected: by any reasonable notion of necessity, the show really need not go on. And there’s certainly nothing honorable in compulsory persistence with business as usual. In situations in which health and lives are imperiled, the production of entertainment, however central it is to all of our livelihoods, and however much pride our members might rightly take in it, is nonessential work.
However obvious, that truth has not been recognized universally. The Hollywood Reporter reported that Prometheus Entertainment, the non-union production company behind the “reality” TV show “Ancient Aliens,” continued to have editorial and other employees report to its offices after L.A.’s Mayor Garcetti ordered all non-essential employees to shelter at home. Prometheus argued that, as a media company, it was an “essential” employer exempted from the city’s order. Notwithstanding the risk to his employees and the greater public, Prometheus President Kevin Burns believed his show must go on.
I don’t know who needs to hear this (aside from Mr. Burns), but nobody should fall ill or die to appease the needs of “Ancient Aliens.”
The problem isn’t unique to our industry, though. Dave Jamieson reported for Huffington Post in late March on a wide range of businesses that had deemed themselves “essential” for purposes of remaining open and having employees report to work in the midst of mandatory closures and social distancing. The companies in question included California Closets, an installer of luxury custom closets, and Michaels, a retailer of arts and crafts supplies. Loose definitions of what constituted critical infrastructure allowed these companies to claim the public good demanded they keep their doors open. The show must go on, such employers asserted, no matter how many workers and how many members of the public were endangered as a result.
Customized closets, of course, are no more essential than episodes of “Ancient Aliens.” But our economy is built in large measure upon an elision of the distinction between the inessential and the essential, upon the fiction of consumer need and upon a false sense of honor attached to serving such needs. The current crisis, hopefully, teaches us that such false necessities aren’t merely frivolous, they’re potentially fatal. Let’s keep perspective, and let the show go dark. Human needs must take precedence over any company’s business model.
For me, personally, I don’t make television or movies or even customized closets. My business — my role in our Guild — is organizing. (When I tell strangers I’m an organizer, though, they sometimes mistakenly assume my job is closet-related.) Does or should that show, the show of organizing, go on? In times of catastrophe, winning union contracts that marginally improve folks’ terms of employment is arguably non-essential work. Moreover, one can’t really go on flipping shows when there are so few shows to flip (our recent and hard-fought union victory at The Young Turks online news and talk network notwithstanding).
Yet I believe (admittedly, perhaps, self-servingly) that organizing ought and will — indeed, must — go on in the face of catastrophe. It must, though, go on in a dramatically changed form. Because organizing, at bottom, isn’t really about securing contracts or increasing a union’s numbers. Fundamentally, it’s about building and marshalling solidarity in order to meet human needs. It’s about creating order to combat entropy, whether that entropy takes the form of an unscrupulous employer, an opportunistic infection, or any other force that threatens us when we are isolated and weakened.
It’s counterintuitive that an unprecedented spike in unemployment would coincide with a rash of militant labor action, but that’s just what we’ve seen nationwide in the early weeks of this crisis. Front-line workers of every description have protested and walked off the job — often in hastily assembled and unauthorized wildcat strikes — to demand their employers not risk their safety or the safety of the public. Grocery workers, app-based gig workers, bus drivers, librarians, warehouse workers, teachers, fast-food workers, nurses, sanitation workers — working folks of all kinds of occupations have stood up to their employers to insist upon measures such as sick leave, protective equipment, new cleaning regimens, hazard pay, social distancing policies, and other measures to protect themselves and their communities. This crisis has thrown into stark relief the fact that the workers who are the most essential are often among the least valued. As we have become more reliant upon these essential workers and as the risks of their jobs have multiplied, they’ve rightly demanded respect and safeguards for their well-being.
Much of the labor unrest we’ve seen recently has been ad-hoc and seemingly spontaneous, and almost all of it has been outside of the traditional structures and protocols of collective bargaining relationships. Workers have taken action for immediate fixes to urgent problems, not for three-year union contracts. In that sense it’s reminiscent of the solidarity unionism of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”), a militant union that had its heyday about a century ago and which eschewed the “business unionism” of more mainstream labor organizations. Indeed, the Wobblies are still around — although they’re not now the force they were in the days of mythic labor legends like Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood, and Joe Hill — and the IWW has been actively organizing during the crisis.
If we’re clearing from our cognitive cupboard those bromides that no longer hold true or are no longer adequate to the occasion — tone-deaf admonitions such as “The show must go on,” for instance — with what mental provisions will we replace them? I propose we borrow a slogan from the Wobblies that seems especially apt for our moment: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The literal truth of this maxim has perhaps never been more apparent as we come to understand the degree to which the health of each individual depends upon the health of their neighbors. The pandemic has taught us about our inextricable interconnectedness, even as it has paradoxically forced us to practice solidarity through physical distancing.
The notion that an injury to one is an injury to all helps us understand that we’ve an obligation that’s both moral and self-serving to tend to the well-being of our sisters, brothers, and kin, because any adversity they face individually can come to harm us collectively. Put into practice, as an organizing principle, this maxim of course informs a walkout at a contaminated Amazon warehouse, a sick-out at a Whole Foods, or an Instacart employee (misclassified as an independent contractor) striking for hazard pay. But it also informs other ways we organize to look after one another, such as the mutual aid work that our union and others have undertaken in recent weeks. It’s about young workers running errands for retirees, costumers sewing masks or healthcare providers, or members phoning and texting to do welfare checks on those most at risk during this crisis.
Many of us, cloistered in our individual homes, are now experiencing some combination of anxiety, depression, horror, boredom, and perhaps even desperation. We feel these injuries perhaps in physical isolation from our colleagues and comrades. But we do not feel them alone, and we can best fight them together.
Let’s organize to strengthen the social bonds that will permit us to weather this crisis. Get involved in the IATSE’s and in our local’s mutual aid activities. Organize, too, in your buildings, your neighborhoods, your communities to solidify the ties we will need to bind up our wounds and eventually emerge from the current catastrophe not simply to return to normalcy, but to make of our world something more healthy and more just.
Looking for ways to help out? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “volunteering” in the subject header, and we’ll get you plugged in to some of the coronavirus-related organizing activities our Guild, our parent union, and/or our allies are running to build stronger communities in this time of physical separation.