Media Politics: Consolidation Among the Unions

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by Jonathan Lawson

The labor unions who represent media industry employees on the job have been anything but neutral as their megacorporate employers have pressed the FCC to allow more mergers and consolidation among radio, TV and newspaper corporations. Several national unions railed against industry consolidation for months leading up to the FCC's June 2 decision; the Newspaper Guild/Communications Workers of America made the issue a main focus of its spring 2002 national conference, and in the aftermath of the Powell decision, the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA (representing film actors and TV/radio employees, respectively) issued a statement condemning the ruling. The unions' interest is hardly surprising - after all, their jobs and working conditions are threatened by multiple perils:

* Clear Channel-style decimation of local radio staffs
* Shifting workloads and extra duties due to horizontal integration or "convergence" in broadcast and newspaper industries
* Imposition on professional journalistic standards as editorial controls are taken away from local newsrooms and centralized

Mergers and acquisitions place financial strains on large media corporations, even as investors demand ever-increasing stock values. This can be bad news for employees of these companies, as managers search for places to cut costs. Payroll and benefits expenses are targeted early for such cuts.

Media audiences rely upon federal regulation to curb corporate abuses of the public airwaves. Industry employees need strong unions to protect their own professional values as well as fair pay and working conditions, and the unions' strength must grow to match the clout of the corporate employers. That, anyway, is the argument put forward last month by SAG and AFTRA representatives, reacting to the FCC's loosening of media ownership restrictions by calling for their two unions to merge - forming a new, larger (and more powerful) entity called the Alliance of International Media Artists. As SAG president Melissa Gilbert argued, "The FCC has voted 'yes' to giving media companies even more power. Now, actors, broadcasters and recording artists must respond�Ķwe must approve consolidation so that we can match strength with strength."

AFTRA and SAG had actually considered merging for decades, and many thought this would be the year it finally occurred. Mergers among media giants such as Vivendi Universal, Disney and AOL Time Warner have meant that the distinctions between the two unions' jurisdiction have been blurring and fading. In fact, more than 37,000 media workers maintain membership in both unions, due to complex employment realities. A consolidated AIMA union would have simplified many workplace negotiations and increased members' collective political power, according to consolidation proponents - including the leadership of both unions.

In the end, SAG/AFTRA consolidation was narrowly defeated in early July. AFTRA members voted three to one in favor of the proposed merger; among SAG members, however, the measure fell just short of the required 60% approval. A group within SAG waged an independent campaign to scuttle the measure, and some within the union accused the group of politicking rather than looking out for the long-term interests of both unions. Another likely reason for the measure's failure was the pride of film actors reluctant to share union power with TV and radio workers.

Ironically, the failure of the AIMA proposal was directly due to a principal strength of the union movement���a strength lacking in corporate boardrooms and, for now at least, in the FCC���democracy. Both SAG and AFTRA will probably continue to work together to promote democratic communications policy, along with the Writers' Guild, the American Federation of Musicians, the Newspaper Guild and other unions, with or without mirroring the industry trend towards consolidation.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey