Guilds and Unions

views updated

Guilds and Unions


Labor unions and guilds have been organized in film industries in many countries. Typically, these organizations have focused on specific types of workers, such as actors, directors, and technical workers—for example, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, TV and Radio Artists (ACTRA), the Directors Guild of Great Britain (DGGB), and the Australian Theatrical & Amusement Employees' Association (ATAEA).

In the early history of film, workers often were organized by trade unions from related industries, such as the theater and the electrical industry. Eventually unions and guilds were formed specifically to organize film workers, and most of these labor groups are still active in film and television industries. Like other labor unions, film labor organizations represent their members in negotiations for wages, benefits, and working conditions, in addition to providing a variety of other services. Some guilds also become involved in negotiating royalty payments, conditions for screen credit, and other issues. Unions and guilds also engage in political activities through lobbying or election campaigning.

Also like other labor organizations, film unions and guilds continue to be challenged by political and economic developments in society in general and film industries in particular. For instance, the global expansion of the film industry during the last few decades of the twentieth century had an impact on film workers in various ways. While film labor organizations around the world have developed and are organized similarly, the focus of this article is on US unions and guilds both as an exemplar and because of the current global prominence of Hollywood films and companies.

While unions and guilds were active in the US film industry early in the twentieth century, the more specialized labor organizations, such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA), emerged in the 1930s during an especially intense period of labor organizing. Although film labor groups in the US were challenged in various ways by the anticommunism of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the groups survived and expanded to include television workers in the 1950s and 1960s. Trade unions and guilds continue to play major roles in the current US entertainment industry.

Film workers in the US represent a highly skilled and specialized labor force, but unemployment is high. For instance, it has been estimated that 85 percent of actors are out of work most of the time. There are some unusual or unique characteristics of film work, as well. Some workers, such as writers, directors and actors, share in the profits of films through profit participation deals. Others may become employers themselves through their own independent production companies or in projects where they serve as producer or director. For example, Billy Crystal worked as an actor in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold (1994), but also was the film's producer. There also are keen differences between above-the-line and below-the-line workers, with consequent differences between the labor organizations that represent these different types of labor. Above-the-line labor organizations involve "creative" workers (writer, director, actors), while below-the-line labor refers more to "technical" laborers (camera operators, editors, gaffers, etc.). The organization of entertainment unions along craft lines rather than as a vertical, industrial structure has tended to inhibit labor unity within the industry.

Generally, motion picture production is labor-intensive, meaning the largest part of the budget is spent on labor. The cost of key talent (especially actors and actresses) is a significant part of the budget for a typical Hollywood film. Above-the-line talent can often represent 50 percent of a production budget, and has been identified as one of the key reasons why the costs of Hollywood films have skyrocketed.


The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the collective bargaining representative for writers in the motion picture, broadcast, cable, interactive, and new media industries. The guild's history can be traced back to 1912 when the Authors Guild was first organized as a protective association for writers. Subsequently, drama writers formed a Dramatists Guild and joined forces with the Authors Guild, which then became the Authors League. In 1921, the Screen Writers Guild was formed as a branch of the Authors League, although the organization operated more as a club than a guild.

Finally, in 1937, the Screen Writers Guild became the collective bargaining agent of all writers in the motion picture industry. Collective bargaining actually started in 1939, with the first contract negotiated with film producers in 1942. A revised organizational structure was initiated in 1954, separating the Writers Guild of America, west (WGAw), with offices in Los Angeles, from the Writers Guild East (WGAE), in New York.

While it may be difficult to determine how many people claim to be Hollywood screenwriters, it is even more difficult to assess how many writers in the industry actually make a living from their writing efforts. According to the WGAw, 4,525 members reported earnings from writing in 2001, while 8,841 members paid dues in at least one quarter of that year. Based on these figures, the guild reported a 51.2 percent employment rate. However, only 1,870 of those reporting earnings were designated as "screen" writers, and that group received a total of $387.8 million in 2001. The Guild also points out that there is a 20 percent turnover among their members each year.

While the minimum that a writer must be paid for an original screenplay was around $29,500 in 2001, much higher amounts are often negotiated. Writers also receive fees for story treatments, first drafts, rewrites, polishing existing scripts, and so on. Other important earnings come from residuals and royalties.

Another area of crucial importance to writers (and others involved in film production) is the issue of screen credits, or the sequence, position, and size of credits on the screen, at the front and end of a film, and in movie advertisements. Credits are a vital issue for many Hollywood writers not only because of their impact on their reputations, but because bonuses and residuals are based on which writers receive final credit. Credits or billing issues may be significant negotiating points in employment agreements and the guilds have developed detailed and often complex rules. The WGA rules generally require a 33 percent contribution to the screenplay from the first writer for credit, while subsequent writers must contribute 50 percent. However, when an executive on a project also becomes a subsequent writer, that executive must contribute "more than 50 percent" to receive credit or, if part of a team, "substantially more than 60 percent" for credit.

The Directors Guild of America (DGA) represents directors, unit production managers, assistant directors, and technical coordinators in television and film. The Guild was formed in 1960 from the merger of the Screen Directors Guild and the Radio and Television Directors Guild. The organization's membership was about 13,100 in 2005.

While the producer manages the overall film project, the director is in charge of production and is usually considered the "primary creative force" in a film's manufacture. The director controls the action and dialogue in front of the camera and is therefore responsible for interpreting and expressing in a film the intentions of the screenwriter and producer as set out in the screenplay. The director is usually hired by the producer, although some directors also become involved as some kind of producer in some films. Interestingly, most directors make only one movie, while only a handful make ten or more.

The DGA negotiates a basic agreement for its members, who then arrange individual contracts with the producer or producing company with terms and conditions applicable to a specific film. Director's agreements include employment terms (salary, and so forth), but also issues relating to creative control such as details regarding the director's cut and final cut of a film. Prompted especially by the introduction of colorized films, the DGA has lobbied strongly for a moral rights law for creative personnel to prevent changes in their work.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was organized in 1933, after several other organizations had attempted to organize film performers, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Clark and Prindle). The history of SAG was at first dominated by the attempt to establish a guild shop (a system under which all actors employed on a film must join the guild), and then by gaining compensation for actors in the constantly expanding forms of distribution (television, video cassettes, etc.). SAG's concern with such compensation is not an insignificant issue considering that its members gained more than $1 billion in 1987 merely from residual payments for TV reruns of old films. Much more revenue has been earned from home video and other new distribution outlets.

Like the DGA, SAG negotiates a basic agreement for its members; however, individual actors and actresses also contract for individual films, sometimes using agents or managers to represent them.

In 1992 the 3,600 members of the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) became a part of SAG's union coverage, primarily because SEG lacked the clout to deal with producers and most extras were working nonunion. Serious discussions of a merger have also taken place between SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). AFTRA was formed in 1937 to represent radio and then television performers. The organization's primary jurisdiction is in live television, but AFTRA shares jurisdiction with SAG for taped television productions. As of 2005 AFTRA represents over 70,000 performers in radio, television, and sometimes, film.

The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) represents musicians across many industries, including film. The trade group, which was formed in the 1890s, has negotiated contracts with the film industry since 1944, and has been especially concerned with new technological developments in sound recording.


The International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE or IA) has been the most powerful union in the US film industry. Formed at the end of the nineteenth century, IATSE organized stage employees in the United States and Canada. As the entertainment industry expanded, IATSE grew to include motion picture projectionists and technical workers at the Hollywood studios and film exchanges throughout North America. When television was introduced, IATSE organized technical workers in the new medium. IATSE's history includes some dismal chapters from the 1930s when racketeers and criminals extorted funds from union members, as well as assisting in the ugly blacklisting activities that tainted Hollywood in the 1940s.

IATSE represents technicians, artisans and crafts-persons in the entertainment industry, including live theater, film and television production, and trade shows. More than 500 local unions in the US and Canada are affiliated with IA. IATSE has a tradition of local autonomy, with a variety of craft-based locals involved in collective bargaining agreements. However, nationwide agreements for film production personnel are negotiated, as well. Moreover, Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild—which was formed in 1996 through a merger of regional groups—is national rather than local in its membership.

IA covers a wide range of employees in film production distribution and exhibition. Among the classifications of workers represented are art directors, story analysts, animators, set designers and set decorators, scenic artists, graphic artists, set painters, grips, electricians, property persons, set builders, teachers, costumers, make-up artists, hair stylists, motion picture and still camerapersons, sound technicians, editors, script supervisors, laboratory technicians, projectionists, utility workers, first aid employees, inspection, shipping, booking, and other distribution employees. IA's bargaining strength comes from this "complete coverage" of all the crafts involved in the production of theatrical, motion picture, or television products, with workers involved in every phase of a production, from its conception through every aspect of its execution.

The National Association for Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) grew first out of radio, and then television broadcasting. The union was organized at the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) as a company union (an industrial organization rather than craft oriented) as an alternative to the larger and more powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) (Koenig, Broadcasting and Bargaining). NABET's relatively militant history is replete with skirmishes with IBEW and IATSE, as well as continuous rumors of a merger with the larger IATSE.

In 1990, NABET's Local 15, which organized 1,500 freelance film and tape technicians in New York, merged with IATSE. Then, in 1992, most of the other NABET locals joined the Communication Workers of America (CWA), effective January 1994. About 9,300 NABET members became a part of the much larger CWA, which by 2005 represented over 700,000 workers in telecommunications, printing, broadcasting, health care, and other fields, in both the private and public sectors. While most of NABET's members were to be moved to an independent broadcasting arm within CWA, NABET's West Coast Local 531 agreed to merge with IATSE because of its 500 members' closer affiliation with the film industry. Thus, IATSE became the only union in the United States to represent behind-the-camera film workers.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is the largest and strongest union in the US and also is active in the motion picture industry, organizing studio transportation workers on the West Coast and various other workers. In 2005 the Teamsters claimed a general membership of over 1.4 million in the United States and Canada; its Hollywood Local 399 had over 4,000 members working as drivers, location scouts, and other personnel in the film industry. Casting directors also joined the Teamsters in that year.


Some of the biggest headaches facing Hollywood unions and guilds are the proliferation of nonunion production, the relocation of production sites all over the country and the world (runaway production), and the growing strength of the entertainment conglomerates that own the Hollywood majors.

The issue of nonunion production begins in the film capital itself. While film and television production around Los Angeles seems to ebb and flow depending upon a number of different factors, there has been an increase in the amount of nonunion production in Hollywood. For instance, only 40 percent of the permits issued by the City of Los Angeles for film work in January 1989 were for unionized productions. However, more recently, IATSE claimed that less than one-third of the films released in the United States are made with union labor. Not only is nonunion labor typically considered less costly, but the established entertainment unions often are perceived as uncooperative and too demanding. It might be noted that independent productions sometimes try to avoid union labor, however, most of the larger and more successful independent companies still work with the unions due to their continuing role in the overall industrial process of Hollywood.

Runaway production has been an ongoing problem for Hollywood labor unions and guilds. The lure of lower budgets with nonunion workers has attracted producers to right-to-work states, such as Florida, as well as other states that have recognized film and television production as a boost to local economies. Meanwhile, foreign locations, such as Eastern Europe and parts of the Third World, offer low budgets and exotic locations. Most recently, Canada has lured film and television production away from Hollywood with offers of trained workers, tax breaks, and a favorable exchange rate. Pressure from the availability of a nonunion option and runaway production has forced the unions to make concessions during contract negotiations, as well as to push for government remedies.

Both of these situations can be explained by film companies' attempt to lower labor cost, in addition to the ready supply of nonunion workers, both in Hollywood and other locations. The abundance of available labor also may be related to the popularity of media in general. The growth of media education at universities and colleges, as well as the increased visibility of film and television production in the popular press, means that there is a glut of eager workers for Hollywood companies to employ, very often without union affiliation. Hollywood also seems to have a fantasy quality, as even "regular" work in the film industry seems glamorous.

While studios try to blame unreasonable union demands for the increase of nonunion production and the flight to nonunion locations, labor leaders (especially from below-the-line unions) claim that they are not the problem. Rather, they point to the skyrocketing costs of above-the-line talent, with especially high salaries going to high-profile actors and actresses. Some union officials point out that film costs will not come down unless studios control above-the-line costs, especially the huge salaries of some stars. The lack of unity among entertainment unions also has been blamed for the growth of nonunion filming. Some of the mergers mentioned previously may help to alleviate this problem, yet the organization of labor along craft lines still exacerbates the situation.

While Hollywood companies have become more diversified, union representation also has followed. The different types of businesses incorporated by Hollywood companies have involved further differentiation of labor, making it difficult for workers to form a united front against one corporation. For instance, workers employed by Disney include animators at the Disney Studio, hockey players on Disney's hockey team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and Jungle Cruise operators at Disney's various theme parks. The differentiation of labor is especially apparent at the theme parks owned by many Hollywood companies, in particular Disney, Universal, Paramount, and Time Warner. Workers at these sites are represented by a wide array of labor organizations, many of which are unrelated to those unions active in the film industry.

Generally, then, the trend toward diversification has contributed to a weakening of trade unions' power as well as a further lack of unity among workers. More than one observer has noted that in the twenty-first century films are produced and distributed by conglomerates that own businesses outside of entertainment. Thus, if film production is halted because of labor problems, the conglomerate's income may slow a bit, but it can still survive with money from other sources.

So the pressures are mounting on labor organizations in the entertainment field. Hollywood unions and guilds have faced difficult struggles in the past, combating a range of problems from difficulty of gaining union recognition in the 1930s to ideological assaults such as the blacklisting period of the 1940s and 1950s. They continue to face further challenges from antiunion sentiments, nonunion workers, and runaway production, as well as power struggles with diversified corporations actively involved in international markets.

SEE ALSO Credits;Crew;Direction;Production Process;Screenwriting;Studio System


Clark, Danae. Negotiating Hollywood: The Cultural Politics of Actors' Labor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Hartsough, Denise. "Crime Pays: The Studios' Labor Deals in the 1930s." In The Studio System, edited by Janet Staiger. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

Koenig, Allen E., ed. Broadcasting and Bargaining: Labor Relations in Radio and Television. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

Prindle, David F. The Politics of Glamour: Ideology and Democracy in the Screen Actors Guild. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Miller, Toby, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell. Global Hollywood. London: British Film Institute, 2001.

Wasko, Janet. "Challenges to Hollywood's Labor Force in the 1990s." In Global Productions: Labor in the Making of the "Information Society", edited by Gerald Sussman and John A. Lent, 173–189. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1998.

——. How Hollywood Works. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2004.

Janet Wasko

About this article

Guilds and Unions

Updated About content Print Article