Wednesday, September 6, 2023

There is no value without labor

As of the publication of this essay—the week of Labor Day 2023—members of the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA remain on strike, I needn’t rehash the specific concerns that led to it because most reasons for organized labor to strike fall under the more basic tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

It’s common knowledge that corporations will do everything they can to squeeze more and more productivity out of their employees, often at the expense of workers’ ability to achieve or maintain a decent standard of living. It only benefits those already in positions of power and privilege for a while, but it’s not sustainable because the people it hurts do not go unnoticed. Eventually, that pain can be transformed into political will to reign in such behavior—at least for a while.

For a few brief decades following World War II, there was a general understanding that everyone who contributed to the economy should benefit from their contribution. From factory workers to CEOs fairly profiting from their labor and investments to the country in which they operate that rely on progressive tax revenue to maintain the infrastructure that modern society and the economy rely upon.

Of course, there are always those for whom the only point of economic involvement is personal gain. For them, maximizing profit by any means necessary takes priority, regardless of how it affects others—including their employees, families, the community, and the environment. As profits rise, so too does their power and influence, which they use to undermine workers’ rights and influence lawmakers to repeal or curtail enforcement of regulations to protect public health, rewrite tax laws, and exploit loopholes.

In my lifetime, wages for most workers have not kept up with increases in their productivity or the cost of living. That includes the people who put in the real labor to produce films and television shows. For all the stories we hear of multi-million dollar pay-or-play contracts for A-list movie stars, most people don’t realize that some of their favorite actors—people whom most may only recognize by their faces—are not wealthy. To say nothing of the countless other crew members working behind the scenes. Theirs is not a life of glamour and luxury; they’re just trying to make a living, like anyone else in any other industry, and they rely on their trade unions to protect their collective interests.

Jess Puente

My support for organized labor stems from the fact that I come from a union family. My late father, Jess Puente, was born in San Fernando, California, in 1924 but was taken to Spain—his parents’ country of origin—when he was only a few years old. After his father died, Dad had to drop out of school around age 11 to help support his family as a laborer during the Franco regime.

It wasn't until the end of World War II that Dad returned home to the States, having joined the U.S. Navy through the American Consulate in Santander. While a natural-born American citizen, living in Spain since he was a toddler meant that Dad would need to learn to speak English as an adult. He also took some remedial classes when he returned to the U.S., but he only made it through a roughly seventh-grade equivalency.

Despite this limit on his education, despite learning English as a second language (which he spoke with a strong Castilian accent), Dad worked as a grocer in supermarkets all over Los Angeles. He lacked the education to ever be able to work in a management position, but he wasn’t just content to do his job; he was proud of it. For over three decades, this steady employment with a livable wage enabled him to bring the rest of his family home from Spain, purchase his own cars, become a homeowner, raise five children, and enjoy a retirement that lasted longer than his career.

In the first quarter of the twenty-first century, consider the idea of someone with a middle-school education, whose first language is not English, working full-time in a non-management position at a grocery store and staying in that job for a large portion of their adult life.

Working such a job in today’s society, could that person ever afford to own a home, or would it be more likely that they’d struggle to pay their monthly rent? Could that individual afford to own and maintain a vehicle, or would reliance on public transportation make more sense? In a contemporary context, it would seem laughable if it wasn’t so depressingly unrealistic.

So, how was Dad able to achieve all of those milestones of the “American Dream”—that are painfully out of reach for so many today—while working in retail, with the challenges of a limited education, as well as cultural and linguistic obstacles that he had to contend with daily?

It's simple: Dad belonged to a union. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. A union that ensured he could earn a decent living wage in exchange for his honest work despite limitations that today would condemn anyone with a similar background to a life of poverty.

Many corporations and their executives claim the “expectation” of employees and contractors to receive better wages—living wages—“is just not realistic.” This is a blatant lie. They are more than capable of paying everyone who works for them an income through which they can securely live and support their families while remaining profitable. They just refuse to do it. Why? Doing so would make their companies marginally less profitable. Of course, throughout their pro-profit pontificating, they conveniently ignore their grossly inflated salaries, stock-option “bonuses,” and golden parachutes.

As companies merge into multinational conglomerates, the lines between industries like “technology,” “retail,” and “entertainment” have become blurred to the point where most workers are struggling. Jobs in call centers, factories, retail spaces, and film sets are all becoming a grind because a handful of people who do a lot less actual work believe that they’re entitled to a larger share of the profits that couldn’t be realized without the labor of others;. However, they’d be hard-pressed to explain to anyone precisely why.

—Joe Puente
Founder/Administrator Utah Filmmakers Association

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the official policies and/or practice of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its officers and/or associates.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and—especially where guest posts are concerned—do not necessarily reflect the official policies and/or practice of the Utah Filmmakers™ Association, its officers and/or associates.