Although I'm a little down on my particular union, I've worked enough low budget, non-union stuff to see what Hollywood would be like without the unions and I do think they're a necessary and important part of the equation. The problem, or at least my problem with the union is a difference opinion of what the fundamental duties of a union are.
Film work isn't like other work. It is, by it's nature, transitory. You work for a few weeks and move on to the next job. That next job is part of the problem and ultimately part of what I think is wrong with union.
As a camera assistant, when I worked on a film I got a paycheck from, say, Warner Brothers. But Warner Brothers didn't hire me. In fact, Warner Brothers most likely had no idea who I was. That's because, in a very real sense, I wasn't working for Warner Brothers. Who I was working for was the Director of Photography (or the First Assistant if I was working as a Second.) That's because it was the D.P.(or 1st, etc.) who hired me. That's not necessarily a strange situation in the sense that I could have been hired by a manager at a normal company. The difference is that on a film set a HUGE part of my job is making sure the DP (or 1st) is happy with me so I get hired on the next job, which may be next week, next month or tomorrow. You see to have a career, the people who hire you have to be happy, they have to get along with you and they have to like you. No problems equals continued employment.
The problem lies in the fact that that goes all the way up the line. The D.P. has to keep the director and the producers happy and they have to keep the studio happy, etc. Unhappiness leads to unemployment. But what happens if the studio (or producer) is screwing you? To whom do you complain? You can't complain to the DP, because it's not his problem, nor can he do anything about it, nor does he want to do anything about it. You can complain to the producers, but that may not get you anywhere as they may be the problem. Or, you can complain to the union, which may solve your problem, but may, in the end, cause you far greater problems. Let me give you two examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.
Example One: Complaining to the producer: I was working on a union commercial and they were killing us. We were on location working long hours in crazy conditions. Our meal breaks kept getting later and later and craft service was minimal. Finally a few of us started talking about meal penalties (which are not automatic - you actually have to put on your time card.) Of course the producer was upset about this as it would affect his bottom line and "talked" to the D.P. We're not entirely sure what was said, but the result was the D.P. came to us and asked us what the problem was. He was concerned. What wasn't said, but was implied was, this was a big account for him, we all got a lot of work out of it, stop rocking the boat. Now we understood all that and we understood that was part of the business so we had waited until the problem was pretty bad. Now, mind you, we were talking about putting in for something for which we had a contractual RIGHT.
But the seed had been sown. WE were trouble makers. The DP was "concerned." Suddenly the next gig was in jeopardy. Should we call the union? What do you think?
Here's another example.
Example Two: Complaining to the Union: I was working on a show where the producers were nickel and diming us at every turn. We were on a weekly salary. You make less per day this way, but if there's a day off, you're supposed to get paid, so it evens out, right? Not if the producers change the deal and put you on a daily rate for the week there's a day off. Mind you, this is a CONTRACTUAL VIOLATION.
What happens? A phone call or two is made to the union. Reps come down, talks happen. Everything is settled. Then, a week or so later rumors start to come out of production. It seems the producers have put the word out, they're looking for reels. They're thinking about replacing the DP next season.
Perhaps it isn't connected.
Perhaps that's not really what's going on. Maybe it really isn't a quid pro quo. Maybe.
Then it happens again. Two more times. The lesson has been learned. The fourth time no one calls the union.
I could go on, but lets leave it at two examples.
The problem here again is that next job, in the case of a commercial, it's truly the next job, in the case of a series it was the next season. In the case of all jobs, it's tomorrow's call sheet.
In the film business, in the UNION business, your job security is only as good as your name appearing on the call sheet.
What does the union do about that? Generally nothing. You can be fired by not really being fired at all. The union should represent it's workers because in this business we put ourselves in jeopardy when we represent ourselves. There needs to be some kind of mediation, some kind of way for things like this to work out. The problem is that the union represents itself a protector of worker's right, but really, fundamentally, all it is someone to provide a framework of rates, health insurance and a pension that any of us may or may not see.
I don't know what the solution is. I wish I had one. On the other hand what these examples point out is that even with the union in place, even with a contract and rules and possible penalties the employers will do whatever they can get away with. Even with the union, you can get screwed, without the union you can get really screwed. You can get screwed because the truth of it is the only true solution to the problem is to find another job.
I always laugh my ass off when I hear people in other parts of the universe talk about how hard it is to fire a union employee.