Actor Bradley Whitford. Photo by Dave Dayen.

MADISON, WI (FDL) – As you may know by now, as many as 100,000 people gathered in Capitol Square in Madison yesterday for a rally for workers’ rights (the media really doesn’t want to give those 6-figure numbers, so more commonly we’ve seen 70,000, but I heard the Madison Police spokesman utter 100,000 personally). I understand that if your media diet is restricted to the cable nets, you may not have heard the news, but there’s plenty of great coverage elsewhere. Most important, the people of Wisconsin know what happened in their state yesterday. And regardless of the publicity, what’s happening here has sparked a new conversation around the country about the basic rights of workers and the importance of organized labor.

Perhaps nobody understands this more than the heavily unionized industry of Hollywood production. The phrase “Hollywood liberal” is tossed around as an epithet, but to the extent that the town has a liberal politics, it’s because so much of the industry is organized, with everyone from actors to cameramen to focus pullers to key grips to set designers well aware of the importance of a union card and the protections that come with it.

“Five years ago, I was shooting a film in Canada, and someone lifted my neck in a fight scene and I was paralyzed,” said Gabrielle Carteris, best known for playing Andrea Zuckerman on Beverly Hills, 90210. Carteris, who is a national board member for both SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), joined actors Robert Newman (Guiding Light) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and spoke at the rally Saturday in Madison.

“My union stood by me and treated me,” Carteris said, referring to her recovery from paralysis. “It would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars without that union protection. It would have been overwhelming to have something like that happen and to feel alone. In the union, it’s what we do for each other.”

Whitford, a Madison East High School graduate, did signal a certain hesitance to step into the middle of this Wisconsin fight. “When I see an actor talk about any issue my heart sinks a little. But you gotta suck it up. With a situation like this, where you’re dealing with your children’s future and the country’s future, you have to respond as a human and get involved.”

Actors Gabrielle Carteris and Robert Newman. Photo by Dave Dayen.

In addition to lending their notoriety, it’s the particular issue of unions that motivated Robert Newman and the others to come here. “I was asked why actors need a union,” Newman said, chuckling. “People think about an actor who makes $12 million a movie. Between AFTRA and SAG, we have about 140,000 members. A very small percentage make a living wage. About 10% make anywhere above a middle-class, $40,000 a year salary.” And yet actors can get the labor protections for when they do work, and the health insurance and benefits to help their peace of mind for when they do not.

“There’s a lot of union-dissing that goes on, especially over the last couple years,” added Whitford. “This bill has thrown into the spotlight the necessity of union protections by (Governor Scott) Walker going after collective bargaining. It’s really hit a chord.”

Whitford recently found himself in the midst of a workplace safety dispute on the set of the recent Fox series The Good Guys. “Filmmaking’s a weird thing because you’re supposed to feel lucky to have the job,” he explained. “The crew may work 17-18 hours straight, and if you say this is unhealthy and strange, you’ll never work again.” This was the case on The Good Guys, which moved production to Texas, a right-to-work state, part of a new pattern for runaway film and television production. “Crew members were getting sick” from all the long hours on The Good Guys, Whitford said. “I asked the executives, can we drop it down to 14 hours, and Fox said no. They do it because they can hide overtime in their bookkeeping but not an extra day. So you’re staging stunts after working 15 hours a day.”

There’s been a long-standing movement in the industry called 12on12off, which started after a cameraman on the movie Pleasantville worked a 23-hour shift, drove off the road while going home, and died. 12on12off seeks a 12-hour workday, with 12 hours off between shifts. “I’ve had a sense for a long time that a lot of people were taking for granted what unions fought for a generation ago,” Whitford said. “There’s a fresh appreciation among the actors for these kind of necessary protections.”

Whitford, Carteris and Newman were inspired by the massive crowd in Madison and the rallies across the country. “There’s an awareness that something is going wrong here,” said Carteris, “But to look out at the crowd was so humbling. There’s nothing more promising, more hopeful. It’s the best of America, the best of who we are.”

“People here are fighting for a very conservative value, to have a strong community, and to get a good education for your kids,” Whitford added. “Unions are really one of the only balancing political forces against entrenched power and big money, and it would be dangerous if that goes away.”

Why did it take so long to get that point across, when unions have been on a decline for decades? “Politics are values in action,” Whitford answered. “It takes an extreme moment of risk to your way of life to sometimes understand that.”