John Sayles Discusses the Importance of Unions

John Sayles—who will appear at the May 16 DC LaborFest screening of "Matewan"—is an American independent film director, screenwriter, editor, actor and novelist. He has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for "Passion Fish" and "Lone Star." The screening is Tuesday, May 16, 7 p.m. at AFI Silver Theatre; tickets here. Sayles will receive the LaborFest’s Tony Mazzocchi Labor Arts Award and do a Q&A after the film.

"OK, fellow workers, we’re moving on!"

The late Haskell Wexler, who served as cinematographer on four feature films with me, would often call out that phrase when it was time to end one sequence or location and start on the next, and it occasionally got a laugh from the more seasoned grips and gaffers. There is an "above the line"/"below the line" divide that operates on Hollywood film sets, and cinematographers, with their unique expertise and generally higher salaries, can be considered close to royalty behind the camera. But in fact, to make a movie production function with any sort of efficiency, the participants do have to treat each other as "fellow workers," with even the biggest stars having to defer to or depend on somebody far down the pay scale from time to time.

Our movie "Matewan," set during a West Virginia coal miners’ strike in 1920, was inspired partly by Ronald Reagan’s first symbolic act upon becoming presidentbusting the air traffic controllers’ union. This was only one front in a decades-long war that has left the majority of America's workers unrepresented. Between the courts, Congress and the constant barrage of Charles and David Koch, and Walmart-financed anti-union propaganda, we are heading back to the every-man-for-himself labor battleground that "Matewan" depicts. One bad argument often used against union standards (or even a decent minimum wage) is their devastating effect on small and marginal businesses. Of course, the elimination of child labor and the 12-hour day was equally devastating, which is just tough beans. If safety, environmental or labor standards make it too expensive to harvest any sort of mineral wealth, then leave it in the ground ‘til its value goes up. What anything "costs," whether it is a war or a mining or manufacturing process, can’t be measured in dollars alone.

The mainstream movie business is a mix of both unions and guilds (I’m in four guilds—directors’, writers’, actors’ and editors’) with a few of the union specialties or locals actually harder to get into than the guilds. These organizations engage in collective bargaining for us and monitor residuals, should that happy situation occur. I’ve been through two prolonged strikes with the Writers Guild of America, East, (WGAE) (my last two novels were written during these) where little ground was gained but punishing rollbacks were averted. Making a movie or television show with union employees can be more expensive ("reality TV" being popular with networks because you hire neither SAG-AFTRA actors nor WGAE writers), but it is also safer, more efficient and often of a higher quality (especially in "production value") than the alternative. There has been a good deal of production flight from areas where these unions and guilds are strong to either foreign countries or "right to work" states, where some of the jobs can be low-balled. I’m one of the writers on a TV miniseries currently shooting in Budapest for 1890s New York Citya decision that will save the production company a certain amount of money and make the production designer’s life a nightmare.

The price of coal did go up after the Mine Workers (UMWA) union was able to organize most of the mines (with some heroic negotiation between then-union President John L. Lewis and former President Franklin Roosevelt). But I would be very surprised if the owners’ profit margin went down, and that profit margin is nowhere mentioned in the Bible or protected by the Bill of Rights. And though the Taft-Hartley Act forbids the WGAE, SAG-AFTRA or the Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) from striking in sympathy with each other, the existence of those unions and guilds provides a service that has little to do with what union scale they can negotiatethe recognition in an otherwise extremely hierarchical business that we are, in fact, "fellow workers."