Film unions buck labor's struggles

Membership in U.S. organized labor has fallen by 2 million over the past four years. But in the film industry, union membership is actually on the upswing.

Michigan's right-to-work law recently took effect. It's the latest blow to U.S. organized labor that's seen membership fall by 2 million over the past four years. But there's at least one sector where union membership is actually on the upswing.

Mike Davis is a union member in Maryland. And to see examples of his work, just drive around Baltimore. Davis builds film sets as a member of the Studio Mechanics Local 487.  He points to a brick storefront he once turned into a burlesque club for director Barry Levinson.  A city liquor inspector happened upon his handiwork and threatened to shut down what he thought was an illegal bar.

"And I think it was a set dresser that said, 'uh sir, this is a movie set,'" Davis said.

Since 2011, Davis' local has added more than 150 new members. It's one of five film production unions in the Mid-Atlantic working on shows like HBO's "Veep" and the Netflix series "House of Cards." Last year, those two productions alone pumped $70 million into Maryland's economy.

Maryland wants to make sure they and others stay on location. Like many states, it offers tax credits to film productions. But in fall 2011, it had blown through $22.5 million in tax credits that were meant to last through next year.
 
Lawmakers now want to add $40 million to the program. And local film unions have become a key lobbying partner.

"I can't overstate the importance of this program enough and how well that it's worked in bringing jobs to Maryland," said David O'Ferrall. He's the business agent for Studio Mechanics Local 487.

Professor Susan Schurman is Dean of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. She says film unions are one of the enduring success stories of the labor movement.

"These are unions that are asking themselves, what do we do to maintain and grow our base and our leverage?" she said.

That's because they have something other unions lack -- star power. Support from the celebrity-studded actor and directors unions have helped trade unions at the negotiating table.

Now those unions are playing a lead role in maintaining or even expanding tax credits in the roughly 40 states that have them. Vans Stevenson is the government affairs director for the Motion Picture Association of America.

"They're front and center in most states where we're advocating," he said.

While film unions are having success lobbying state legislatures, others have paid the price of state budget cuts. The Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has lost 3,500 members since 2007.* Patrick Moran is chapter president. He said his members don't begrudge the film unions for their success on tax credits.

"You can see the tangible results," he said. "You can see them on television. You watch them, so you know where that money is going."

And Moran says the political appeal of film production tax credits  goes far beyond the jobs they support.

"It's like, 'Hey, they're going to film something in my hometown, or I'm going to see these actors walking down the sidewalk, and they're going to spend money in my city and state.' That has some attractiveness to it," he said.

This week the bill to expand the tax credit program passed Maryland's legislature with overwhelming support. And Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected sign it as early as next week.


*UPDATE: After this story aired, Marketplace was contacted by the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Their representative said, “Chapter president Patrick Moran was incorrect when he told Marketplace that membership had declined by 3,500 since 2007.” The union said that, based on alternate calculations, it had actually gained 3,800 members during that time. 

About the author

Jason Slotkin is a reporter in Washington, D.C.

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