Unions amass power through manipulation. David McNew/Getty Images

November 8, 2023   6 mins

In the Fifties, television destroyed radio, many of whose stars were themselves survivors of the death of vaudeville, and persisted through radio and into film: The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields. And many of the first movie stars had come first from the music halls, such as Chaplin; Will Rogers became a movie star after his pre-eminence in vaudeville.

But the movie stars were contemptuous of the New Form, and hung back until the dam broke. (I recall casting discussions in New York in the Seventies themed: “Do you think he would consider doing a Movie of the Week…?”) Still, television and film rubbed on, misharnessed, until the current amalgamation. In 2013, I wrote and directed an HBO film, Phil Spector. On hearing of it, my young son said: “Dad, you’re doing a Made-For-TV Movie. That’s shameful.”

Now the new technology has, again, upset the applecart. Streaming has forever disrupted the old means of distribution, which, after all, is the determining factor in disseminating information — and, so, in determining content. Industrial production requires and rewards economies of scale and expenditure. The corporation buys in bulk, with neither time nor interest in that which one might call artistic integrity, which a comptroller, looking at numbers alone, could only understand as insubordination. The actually talented — those disposed and able to bring their idiosyncratic vision (art) to manufacturing — are as much of an obstruction as Chinese devotees of Feng Shui would be to the Hyundai production line. (To disrupt a production line is the original meaning of sabotage.)

There is a hopscotch effect in show business — it may be universal, but this is the only racket I know. The entrepreneurs and adventurers jump on the new thing. Some become successful, and the creators, actors, hucksters and thugs may exist in some sort of equilibrium until the tide turns.

With the coming of television, producers searched out the famous, to draw the viewers, but also hired the unknowns to work cheap. Early TV scripts were farmed out, one or several at a time, to individual writers (previously known as “writers”). There was a writers’ room, generally, only in comedy shows. No writers’ rooms were required for horse operas, and Warner Television churned them out on their lot, distinguishable only by their theme-songs. With the success of The Industry, land values increased. The movie lots — belonging to Paramount, Warners, Universal, Fox — cut down or eliminated the backlots where the films were made, turning them into cash. (Century City was the backlot of 20th Century Fox.)

Independents then took to the streets and the countryside, to film on location — a process greatly simplified by the invention of the Steadicam in 1975. Now, one didn’t need to lay “dance floor” to allow the heavy cameras to move; and the more sensitive film stock lessened the need for elaborate lighting. Filmmaking, then, migrated first away from Hollywood, and then out of the United States, as the unions caught up with the economies enjoyed on location.

When I first showed up, movie scores were recorded on a soundstage in New York or LA by a full orchestra, the conductor watching the film projected, full-sized, behind them. Today they’re recorded over the internet, or its equivalent, by musicians in some Baltic Land, while the conductor watches the film on his iPhone. The number of working film musicians in Hollywood decreased from thousands in the Forties to virtually none today. But the number of writers increased.

Music is, of course, the universal language (except for Disco), but writers of English-language films require only the entry-level skill of speaking English. So, Hollywood, in the age of mass streaming, and tsunamis of “content”, needs writers. The writers work in Hollywood, rents here go up, but salaries go down. This is the ancient contretemps between the workers and the owners, capital and labour.

The workers, however, have always been split between the crafts and the industrial unions. Marx, that jokester, said that all the worker has to sell is his potential for labour. Well and good for a miner or cotton-mill girl; but a craftsperson, let alone an artisan or artist, has something more to sell: the productions of his unique talent and skill — and, to be Marxian, its potential beauty. Artisans have little in common with those on the assembly line; in Hollywood, however, they are in the same unions.

As for the unions, like any organisation evolved into life, they develop their own hierarchies and agendas, which more closely resemble those of management than those of the shop floor. They take form from the struggles of shop stewards, delegates, and negotiators within the union; as with our government representatives, they live in a hermetic world, separate from those they are elected to represent, and amassing power through their control, which is to say, their manipulation. The relation of union leadership to management is like that of opposing parties in Congress. Whatever differences they profess or portray, they play golf together, and, on the golf course, complain or joke about their constituents, who make it so tough to get along.

Interchange between the parties may sometimes appear static, but it is always in flux. Greater pay causes an influx of union members, which gives the union more clout in making demands, and more dues with which to enlarge recruitment, “research”, and similar bureaucratic metastasis, and to raise the salaries of their litigators and staff. Successful wage hikes force management to reduce profits or forgo modernisation.

Or changes in technology may incite management to attempt to cut employment, prompting the unions to insist on the status quo. The negotiations that follow inevitably result in higher costs to the consumer, which weakens the producer. Finally, these, like all negotiations, are a game of chicken, played by teams with catchy slogans on their sweatshirts: “We owe it to the stockholders”; “We owe it to our brave union and martyrs.” (Essentially the teams’ mascots.)

The United Auto Workers negotiated the richest deals in the history of organised labour in the Sixties — workers won great benefits in wages and pensions, but, 20 years later, American Automakers were, effectively, paying three sets of salaries where the Japanese, unhampered by unions and thrilled to employ automation, could make a better car cheaper, and so, captured the market.

Few gold rush miners got rich. The big money was made by the folks who sold the shovels. On the other hand, the Aboriginals of Australia were doing swimmingly for millennia, until the coming of the Europeans in 1780. The newcomers saw what they thought were ignorant savages; but the Aboriginals had worked the land, and managed it, through inventive technologies of crossbreeding, fertilisation, and controlled burning, and could find water, and both sustain and consume the odd local fauna. The Europeans could do none of the above, and starved until the next ship arrived. They drove off, killed, or enslaved the Aboriginals, who were displaced by a technology (firearms), which has the power to coerce, but none to create.

The slash-and-burn methods of Australian Aboriginals can be called primitive, or magnificently effective methods of environmental control — harnessing natural processes for human sustenance, through understanding of the cycles of growth-and-decay. The ash of the burnt-over areas fertilised the ground for new growth, not only of planted crops, but of shoots and berries to attract and support the food-source wildlife.

A similar, though unintended, example can be found in the auto industry. Allied bombers destroyed the industrial capacity of both Germany and Japan, and then American money rebuilt them with new technologies, to compete with American production’s outmoded plants and the cumbersome employment contracts based upon the old technologies.

Q. Are technological changes beneficial? A. To whom, at what time? Radio wiped out Vaudeville; some performers persisted, but it was only for a while (as did some Neanderthals with the advent of homo sapiens).

Has society benefited by the ubiquity of streaming? Endless internet outlets have resulted in the proliferation of chaff, and the inevitable reduction of writers to the status of stoop labourers. Yet thwarted inspiration will always search for an outlet, which can most easily be found today in the writing of refrigerator magnets — for if they do not amuse, shock and delight, they aren’t purchased. The consumer here has a choice, as he does not with industrial entertainment (buy the subscription and take it or leave it). One, however, cannot spend the evening with a glass of vodka appreciating a refrigerator magnet.

How will it all end? It will not, but will continue, will-he, nil-he: the unfolding Grand-Guignol of human nature, rushing, like the wild river in flood, unchecked, and so on, carving its own banks and channels, while some in the lowlands adapt, flee or pray, and some, thinking themselves immune, picnic on the high ground, clucking at the spectacle, and suggesting to each other that Something Must be Done.

With thanks to Pat Shipman for ‘Our Oldest Companions’.

Copyright © 2023 by D. Mamet

David Mamet is an American playwright, film director, screenwriter and author. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Glengarry Glen Ross.