From Hollywood to Wisconsin: A Good Day for Unions

This past Sunday, February 27, 2011, you couldn't turn on a television, read a Twitter stream or do much anything else without seeing proud union members. From the almost-entirely unionized Oscar winners to the public workers in Wisconsin continuing their two-week sit-in for worker justice, Americans everywhere were hopefully reminded that unions make America great.

Of course, watching the Oscars last night, you would be forgiven for not knowing that Hollywood is one of the most heavily unionized industries in our nation. There were only two shout-outs to unions during the show. But last month, at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards ceremony -- the awards presented by the film and television actors union -- thanks and praise for unions from some of Hollywood's biggest names abounded.

Natalie Portman, for instance, accepting her SAG award for Best Actress in a Film, thanked the union for protecting her rights when she was a child actor, making sure she wasn't overworked and had to get an education. "I've been working since I was 11 years old and SAG has taken care of me," Portman said. Portman just won an Oscar, but she also just graduated from Harvard. She thanks her union for that.

Melissa Leo, who won Best Supporting Actress last night, didn't curse when she won the same category at the SAG awards. Instead, she said, "Unions make this country great because it gives a voice to the working people."

When we wax nostalgic about "The American Dream," we aren't bragging about how the children of Goldman Sachs executives can grow up to be Goldman Sachs executives. The American Dream for which we stand is the dream that every American has an equal opportunity to work hard and prosper. It's fitting that The King's Speech won for Best Picture last night --- a film about the privileged, impermeable oligarchy of England that our nation purposefully rejected in our founding. Even still, the fabulously wealthy Weinsteins didn't get up on stage when the film they backed won. It was the actors, the directors -- the WORKERS -- the people whose labor made the film, those are the ones we celebrate. It's not just the stories they tell but the fact that they all belong to unions that weaves Hollywood so intricately into the fabric of American life.

In Wisconsin, even though public workers have agreed to salary and benefits concessions, Republican Governor Scott Walker still wants to strip public workers of their right to collectively bargain -- a brazen political ploy that has nothing to do with balancing the state budget and everything to do with undermining the power of unions in elections. Don't think this has nothing to do with private-sector actor unions. Despite all the rhetorical distinctions from the Republican camp, the Koch brothers and big business backing the attacks in Wisconsin and elsewhere openly condemn all unions. They simply see that fanning deficit-phobia and blaming public unions instead of outsized tax cuts for the rich is a perfect wedge to turn public opinion not only against public unions but, ultimately, unions in general. Do you really think the Koch brothers give a damn about the state of the budget in Wisconsin? If this were a movie, you know it wouldn't just end with the destruction of public unions...

Which is why the Screen Actors Guild sent several high-profile members to a Madison rally this past weekend to speak up for the rights of all workers everywhere to unionize. Hollywood sees the big picture.

Last night, one of the police officers sent to clear protesters from the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, simply looked a protester in the eye and said, "Thank you for being here." A few hours later, millions of Americans watched unionized actors, directors, cinematographers and film writers and thanked them, very loudly, for being here. Over the long story arc that is our nation's history, let us never forget the invaluable role that unions have played ensuring fairness for working people and creating opportunity for each of us to play a role in our glittering American Dream.