Right-to-Work Laws and the Entertainment Industry


Robert S. Giolito, P.C., 11755 Wilshire Blvd Ste 2140, Los Angeles CA 90025, (310) 473 3535


        With many motion picture and television producers leaving the traditional Southern California TMZ and entering the former hinterlands of Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina and other places that have enticed them with generous subsidies and tax breaks, there’s a lot of confusion concerning the so-called “right-t0-work” laws that exist in many of these states.   Some producers (a lot, actually) think they can ignore their existing labor contracts or avoid those pesky unions altogether, while some employees think they don’t have to pay their normal union dues.   None of that is true.

         A so-called “right-to-work” law simply means that in that state, union membership cannot be made a condition of employment.  In other words, one doesn’t have to join a union and pay membership dues in order to get a job in the industry.  But unions still exist in those states, their members pay dues, producers negotiate binding contracts with them, and those contracts get enforced.  In fact, some of the fastest growing unions in the country are the entertainment union affiliates in these supposedly inhospitable right-to-work states.  Why is that?

       The entertainment industry has historically had deep union penetration.  Today, almost all of the craftspeople and talent necessary to produce a modern motion picture are members of an entertainment guild or union.  This includes directors, writers, actors, stunts performers, and all the craftspersons and technicians like camera operators, editors, art directors, painters, grips, electricians, make-up artists, costumers, etc.  The most experienced and talented of these folks are often long-time union members and are frequently seen in industry awards shows, including those given by the unions themselves, e.g. the popular SAG Awards.   It’s natural that aspiring talent and craftspeople will want to be in the same group as their celebrated peers.

        None of this changes when a production locates in a “right-to-work” state.  Those hired who are already union members remain in their union and continue to pay their union dues.  While it’s true that a newbie, say a student just out of film school hired as a video assist, would not be compelled to join a union, most would, and do, welcome the chance to do so.  And the more productions that enter that state, the more likely it is that their employees will join a union (if they’re not already members) in order to enjoy the economic benefits of a union contract, such as health insurance and retirement contributions.

       For many years, producers thought they could easily avoid the entertainment unions, or at least some of them, by producing in “right-to-work” states and hiring non-union employees.  This is no longer the case.  In the first place, most of the so-called “above the line” talent (directors, writers, actors) that the producer will want to employ are existing union members and will not work in a non-union production, at least publicly.   The talent guilds have strict rules against working in a non-guild production.  Second, the “below-the-line” crafts, the camerapersons, editors, electricians, grips, etc., have been intensively organized by their very active industry union, the IATSE.  If a union’s members represent a majority of the producer’s employees, or if the union organizes them into membership, there is nothing in a “right-to-work” law that prohibits the union from demanding recognition and a union contract, and striking if necessary.   Most producers have figured this out, which is why the vast majority of productions in these states are under union and guild contracts.

       So, the bottom line is that a state’s so-called “right-to-work” law will have little, if any, practical effect on a modern motion picture production.  Producers will find talent and crews that are largely union members already and it will be very difficult to attempt to produce without those members demanding a union or guild contract.  Those employees who are already members will continue to pay their dues so as to continue their union and guild affiliation.  And the producer who tries to go non-union completely will likely experience an organizing campaign with many of its employees jumping at the chance to join and get that coveted guild or union card, let alone better health insurance and retirement.