#HollywoodLabor is a project of DSA Los Angeles that played a key role in a successful campaign to expand union membership for entertainment workers in Los Angeles and helped with the campaign to boycott LA Weekly after it was purchased by a conservative investment group. C.M. Lewis interviewed Jon, a rank-and-file member of DSA Los Angeles and an unorganized entertainment industry worker, on the project’s origins, the role for Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the labor movement, and what the project offers for other chapters.
CM: How did you first get involved in DSA?
Jon: I grew up with parents who were involved in the Left. My mom was in the Socialist Workers’ Party in the 60s and 70s and my dad was in Students for a Democratic Society in North Carolina, so I’ve always been kind of radically inclined, but I joined DSA right after Trump got elected.
Like a lot of people, I saw it on Twitter. I was semi-familiar with the organization from when I was in high school. I knew a couple of people that had joined back in D.C., but I certainly hadn’t really been a part of an explicitly socialist organization before. I’d organized anti-war events in college during the Iraq War and organized stuff around human rights issues in high school, but this was the first socialist organization I’d ever joined.
CM: What are your unofficial/official roles in Los Angeles DSA?
Jon: I joined DSA around December 2016 or January 2017. I’ve spent a lot of time in #HollywoodLabor and the Labor Committee. I’ve also done a bit of work with Agitprop directing some videos and helping produce some others. I helped start the Mutual Aid Committee back in July or August of 2017, and I’ve been involved in the Anti-Oppression Committee.
I feel it’s very important to do admin work and quality of life projects. I helped organize our childwatch program at the beginning, and I did a lot of childwatch for a very long time. Coming from D.C., I was exposed to an anarchist perspective and and I’m very big on horizontal organizing and projects that strengthen social bonds between members.
CM: #HollywoodLabor was one of DSA Los Angeles’s first big campaigns. How’d it start?
Jon: I was in a Labor Committee meeting (I say “I” just because I’m telling it from my perspective) and I’d been laid off about a month earlier from a job for a new media digital company that made short-form video content. I was writing and directing for them. The conditions were very, very terrible: before it went out of business the production got shut down by the city for not having the correct permits, the company used scab labor on another project, and then got protested by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). I was in the Labor Committee expressing these frustrations, and we and some other folks in the industry expressed similar frustrations.
Francisco, who was one of the heads of the Labor Committee at that point, said “You know, I’m seeing a lot of folks in our meetings who are in the film industry”—and he’s an organizer for a teachers’ union, so he’d never really known any Hollywood folks. He kind of recognized there was a need for this project, that DSA Los Angeles (for a couple of different reasons) was going to attract folks in the entertainment industry, and that there was an avenue there for organizing. There are a lot of folks in the entertainment industry whose needs aren’t being served. Many of the digital and new media companies aren’t union, so there’s a whole growing segment of the entertainment workforce that isn’t unionized.
The way unions operate in the entertainment industry is unique. They’re based on the craft union model—they’re engineered in a very specific and unique way to ensure the protection of their members. But the folks on the outside don’t have someone speaking for them as well. I think Francisco saw, in that moment, an opportunity, and it was a really good organizing lesson for me, in that you don’t build a project from the top-down. You build the project from the bottom-up. You see who’s there, who’s showing up, who has a need, and you build the project that way, in a kind of organic bottom-up way.
CM: What were your first steps as a group?
Jon: The first thing was that the people interested in the project came together and we spoke, voiced our frustrations. We’re a fairly diverse group labor-wise. For example, Rachel is an actor, Isabella, Clare, and Brenden are writers and writers assistants, and Andrew is a DP and assistant camera person. So we got together, and we thought about what we could offer, because some of us are union, some of us are not, and well—let me use a story of how the union situation is.
When I was laid off, I had to apply for unemployment. When I went to the unemployment office they said, “Well, okay, you’re a writer. Have you tried joining the Writers Guild?” And I said, “I wish I could,” but that’s just not how it works. There’s a segment of the Hollywood workforce in Los Angeles that not only doesn’t have the protection, but doesn’t have the knowledge around labor protections and how unions work.
Sort of where we landed is that we could raise workers’ consciousness; not in those explicit terms, but I think that was the intent. Our first event was writer’s assistants and script coordinators were in the process of trying to unionize with IATSE. One of the main things we did at our first event was we invited script coordinators and writer’s assistants to come and see a presentation from an organizer at IATSE, we did some breakout groups so we could share stories, and we came back together and talked about how we all have similar problems, and how union organizing can address those problems. Then the people that were writer’s assistants and script coordinators could sign their union cards, so it was a way to help that effort while at the same raising workers’ consciousness.
CM: What are some challenges you see in labor organizing?
Jon: One of the toughest things about organizing in America in 2018 is that there’s a real lack of workers’ consciousness. People literally do not identify as workers, because they’re trained to see themselves like, “I work at a desk all day in an office, I’m not working on a factory floor,” right? So much of the perception of unionism is tied up in this outmoded idea that unions are for coal miners. But what it really comes down to is: if you don’t control the means of production, and you’re not extracting profit off someone else, then you’re a worker.
People get caught up in these ideas of upper class, and lower class, and middle class—and those are all really kind of bullshit. It’s about who controls the means of production, and most of us don’t. Putting that kind of discourse back into labor organizing is an important first step, and to tell people “Hey, you don’t have to take this,” right? Because a lot of what it means to work in Hollywood is to be told “Be grateful.” And we want to shatter that myth that you should be grateful for your job.
Another big thing is that we wanted to forge solidarity across industry lines. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a lot of solidarity when it comes to different positions within Hollywood. There are weird delineations on set, like “above the line” (people like producers, cinematographers, and directors), and “below the line” (everyone else). And you see those delineations in union splits, where “below the line” folks are usually represented by IATSE, and “above the line” folks get represented by their own craft unions.
We don’t want to attack and we’re very explicitly not in opposition to those craft unions, but we do recognize that there’s a lack of solidarity between workers in different unions, and that it could be better. If someone’s being exploited on a production, everyone should be mad.
One of our best events was when we had some non-cisgender male comrades on a panel talking about experiencing sexual harassment in the industry and how to use unionizing and labor organizing tactics to combat that. So there was something really tangible people could walk away with after that meeting. And we did that right as the Harvey Weinstein stuff was breaking. We learned all these practical applications of organizing tactics to fight workplace harassment.
CM: What are some lessons for other chapters?
Jon: I don’t know if it’s controversial or not, but I’ll speak to the fact that I think organizing efforts for DSA Los Angeles and DSA National should really consider what it means to organize the unorganized. The majority of the workforce isn’t organized, and the majority of the workforce doesn’t have a developed workers’ consciousness. And I don’t say that like #HollywoodLabor and other organizations exist to, in that very old school sense, inspire the masses. We’re here to collaborate with fellow workers, we’re here to agitate them, we’re here to remind them, “You’re being exploited and it doesn’t have to be like that.”
I think there’s something very radical about getting a group of people that aren’t in a union together, and getting them to realize what it means to have the power of an organized force, when it’s not just you, ??? Telling each other salaries, sharing stories of workplace sexual, gender, or racial exploitation—I think there’s something very powerful and radical in that.
When we have our meetings, we have them very intentionally. We ask people not to take pictures or use names outside of the room, and we very specifically curate them so people feel safe. People can come, and share, and have conversations that they may not be able to have anywhere else.
I think that what’s needed now, and granted, I’m not in a union, I’m not a union steward, and my experience in labor organizing is about two years old now, is a new and exciting vision for what it means to organize in a world where a lot of people work at McDonald’s, and a lot of people work at a desk.
I think there’s room for folks in non-unionized industries to have those conversations, and I think DSA can be a part of that because we’re all workers, and even if you live in an area where union density is super low, you can still ask people “Hey, does work suck? Do you want to come talk about it?”