Something big happened on Friday. "We Shall Overcome" spontaneously erupted with the announcement of ... a new union! SAG-AFTRA, one union, now stands where once there were a separate Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA). Memberships of both overwhelmingly voted to merge. They include many of the faces, voices and much of the music heard and seen in every part of the world, in films, on television and radio, on cable and increasingly in the emerging world of new media.
These union members' highly visible roles in the world incalculably magnify the powerful signal this merger sends to corporate America: the labor movement is far from dead. Members of two unions, traditionally at odds, have figured out there's strength in organizing and power in unity.
While it doesn't hurt that George Clooney, Octavia Spencer, Betty White, Michael J. Fox, Robert DeNiro, Jon Cryer, Jane Curtin, Dana Delaney, Danny DeVito, Jenna Fischer, Felicity Huffman, Alfred Molina, Rainn Wilson and hundreds of others known and unknown, of all ages, ethnicities, and identities endorsed One Union -- it also took organizing. Strong union leadership, strong staff and the thousands of hours that members of both unions volunteered all added up to a remarkable result: where "only" 60 percent of each union's membership voting "yes" were required to carry the day, both memberships affirmed by considerably more than 80 percent (SAG by 82 percent, AFTRA by 86 percent).
A decade ago, these two unions tried -- and failed -- to merge. What changed? The world.
Technology changed radically. Media owners became fewer and bigger. Corporations grew impossibly arrogant as regulations grew laughably lax. Extremists in every corner of the country, in ever sector, and in every endeavor grew so bold they now seek to overtly take control of the United State government (read Koch Brothers). The good news about the past calamitous years of corporate greed and avarice is that the perpetrators of homegrown abuses have been teased out of the woodwork. They have grown reckless with their presumed power.
And then there was the wake-up call from Wisconsin. Governor Scott Walker's attack on organized labor (fronting for the Kochs, among others) there certainly helped the AFTRA's and SAG's memberships view the road ahead with new-found clarity. Thank you, Governor Walker. We look forward to watching SAG-AFTRA members in newsrooms across the nation reporting on a recall vote which can't come soon enough.
This affirmation of union solidarity bodes well for other working people. It means that negotiations will be fairer, that economic benefits will be distributed more equitably rather than being usurped by a concentration of economic power in the hands of, yes, the .1 percent. On Monday, working people across the nation can stand a little taller, dream a little bigger, more readily accept the fact that too many employers have lied to them about unions. Perhaps some will even pluck up the courage to call in a union organizer.
As good as this merger will be for people both in management and labor across the news, entertainment, recording, and motion picture industries, it is even better for the nation. This resounding affirmation of collective action, enacted by two highly visible unions now merged into one, is a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It should be seen as a warning to exploitive employers, especially coming as it does from the heart-beat of American culture.
Unions are far from perfect institutions; indeed, I know of no institution on earth which, given unchecked power, will not exploit and abuse that power. For many workers, unions are preferable to standing alone in the face of the overwhelming power of corporations. When any group holds all the power, bad results are inevitable. For balance, there must always be a counter-force.
On a personal note, I have been a proud union member since 1976. When WMAQ, the NBC-TV station in Chicago, hired me to host a weekly show, joining the union was a most welcome requirement to work there. Over the years, my membership has made a profound difference to me and my family in terms of benefits I've earned, especially health insurance. But my union membership has meant a great deal more to me than simply economic benefits. Looking into the future, quite literally with tears in my eyes, on this momentous occasion when two great unions have become one, I am immensely proud to be a part of the larger, historic stream of ordinary and extraordinary people coming together, organizing, and fighting the good fight so that countless individuals' lives -- and America itself -- can be stronger, better and more just.
So in our home we're celebrating ONE UNION this weekend. And, as SAG-AFTRA's new co-President Roberta Reardon reminded us at the end of the merger announcement, "Remember, the weekend you'll be enjoying is a union creation!"
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