The School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) opened its annual Pre-Labor Day Convocation yesterday, reveling in the ironies of labor.
First the School heard from a union leader, Theodore Bikel, president of the Association of Actors and Artists of America (AAAA), who represents workers frequently conveyed as “iconoclastic, individualistic [and] egocentric” both on and off the screen or stage.
Earlier, an ILR student had charged Cornell’s own labor school with leading an inadequate observance of workers’ federally recognized holiday, celebrated on Monday.
In a speech entitled “The Artist as Worker,” Bikel emphasized the apparent contradictions of AAAA, an association that includes some millionaires but represents mostly workers fighting to stay above the poverty line.
“What distinguishes us from workers of other walks of life is that we are passionate. I know of no factory worker who worships the automobile that he manufactures,” Bikel said.
But as he explained, these artists’ dedication to their work makes them vulnerable to other artists as well as employers.
“The stars don’t need our help protected as they are by a phalanx of lawyers, representatives and agents,” Bikel said.
Bikel addressed two subsidiaries of AAAA, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, that have been on strike since Apr. 9 against advertisers filming commercials.
While the workers have always been paid according to the number of times their commercials appear on television, some advertisers propose to offer only a lump sum for commercial acting. Then, according to Bikel, the workers would not only be left with less money in their pockets, but advertisers could replace one actor’s work with that of another — or even that of her/his own prior work.
Bikel also spoke of his initiative to acquire public housing for AAAA artists. Facing staunch government opposition, Bikel sought a subsidy for poor performing artists.
Finally after eight meetings with state officials, the president won support from a government still suspicious of the “average” actor.
“All you know is Paul Newman and Shirley McLaine,” said Bikel, who lobbied in the 1960s for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Council of Arts and public broadcasting.
However, behind the stars and bright lights are hidden thousands of ordinary workers struggling in isolation from others in working class America.
To honor those workers, David Unger ’02 spoke on behalf of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA).
“One of the first actions that COLA is doing this year is directed at a very local level. It is directed at the ILR school,” Unger said.
He urged students in attendance to show their support for the cause by signing a petition to pressure the ILR school into a more dedicated recognition of the holiday. This year and in recent years, ILR has only allotted two hours for students to miss classes for the convocation.
Following Unger behind the podium, Prof. Richard W. Hurd, Industrial and Labor Relations said, “I’m sure there are members of the faculty who will sign those petitions.”
As a matter of fact, Hurd remembers a time when ILR suspended classes for Labor Day — and COLA organized the ensuing events of the day.
Then, during his second year at the School, ILR resumed classes on Monday due to difficulties with attracting speakers, among other conflicts, Hurd said.
“I went to the dean [at the time] and I said: this is the ILR School. How can we let [Labor Day] pass without some recognition for labor?”
Hurd continued, offering no reason to maintain the current plan to hold classes on Labor Day.
“I don’t see it as inconsistent to have a pre-Labor Day convocation on the first week of classes and to release classes on Monday as well,” he said.
While it remains to be seen what impact the group’s efforts will have, ILR Dean Edward J. Lawler expressed his willingness to engage the issue.
“We would certainly consider a change, and we would be interested in hearing what the students have in mind,” Lawler said.
As for next week, however, “there is an expectation by the University to have classes on Monday,” he added.
Fighting on vastly different fronts, COLA, with Unger speaking at the convocation, and Bikel came together with a consistent message.
“We are about respect,” Bikel said, articulating this foremost concern.
“We must never lose the fire, the enthusiasm which has always been the hallmark of the union,” he said.
Archived article by Aaron Reisner