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Sunday, May 9, 2021

As Strikes Slump, New Acts of Activism Emerge for Workers

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Lawrence Altman has known about the art of acting for almost as long as he can remember. He was a student of Roman Polanski and other great Hollywood directors in the 1960s. And he was just 11 when a friend, a Marine pilot from Los Angeles, took him to Hollywood and took him to auditions. “That was as good as my teachers in school,” he says, recalling how good they were at trying to get him a break. “What I learned is it’s as hard to win an audition in L.A. as it is in school.”

Mr. Altman and his wife, Jodi — the woman who taught him to act, that is — have shared that experience for 35 years, as union members for their respective professions, and the institution has persisted. Even as other unions have shrunk or disappeared in the first decades of the 21st century, the Actors’ Equity Association has existed as a 300-member trade union that dates back to 1946 — even after the wholesale destruction of unions around the country.

With the diminishing influence of unions, actors are turning to one another to find support, says Marge Freed, a professional actor and labor activist who works with Actors’ Equity. Actors for Equity is the union’s advocacy arm, highlighting issues such as equal pay and the need for better job protections.

Though actors have for years been protesting gender-specific stereotyping, this year’s issue includes recommendations on how unions can better represent their concerns. The recommendations include offering workshops in script reading and artistic development and holding seminars on any number of topics for actors. “My hope is that Actors’ Equity will be a place for advocacy,” says Heather Rhoads, the association’s senior director of political and organizing advocacy.

In the same sense, most other unions have drifted into a culture of passivity in the face of workplace relations.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents food workers and other employees, has declined in recent years to pursue a member-driven boycott of a particular chain store or to picket a particular retailer after the workers’ union broke away.

The fact that CWA, the Service Employees International Union, and a sister organization have all directed low-wage employees to financial advice and services in the last year, instead of organizing walkouts or protests for higher wages, has grown into a consistent source of dissension within the parent union.

As the chairman of an advisory committee on workers’ rights, a CWA local president has accused the head of the parent union of ignoring the day-to-day problems of his members. And a union spokesman said the complaints should be based on differences with the parent union.

Even one of the biggest, most dominant unions, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, has faced internal dissent. This year, one union leader, Thomas Malone, became president of the parent company and moved to centralize decision-making in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Activists see inconsistencies as a trend among unions in changing from a by-the-seat-of-their-pants approach to a more standard and orderly method of operating.

The perception that unions have fallen behind has grown particularly prevalent within the old-line unions, where unions once were seen as central institutions that were autonomous and were not tempted to sell out.

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