An unexpected bright spot for unions

May 21, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Georgia is rarely thought of as union-friendly, but as the entertainment industry in the Peach State has flourished, so too have the membership rolls of local unions.

By David Koeppel

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FORTUNE -- It's safe to say that unions have taken quite a beating over the past few years, all across the U.S. But organized labor has found an oasis inside a most curious corner of anti-union America.

In recent years, Georgia has undergone a film and television industry production boom that has positioned it as one of the most desirable shooting locations in the United States. As the entertainment industry in the Peach State has flourished, so too have the membership rolls of the local unions associated with the industry.

New studios are being built to accommodate the demand, and shows like The Walking Dead are attracting tourists who flock to the locations where zombies have devoured their favorite characters.

To be sure, Georgia is rarely thought of as union-friendly. It has been a right-to-work state since 1947 and currently has a Republican governor and a GOP legislative majority. In March, the senate passed legislation opposed by organized labor that in part allows union members to stop having dues deducted from their paychecks.

One of the unintended consequences of passing tax incentives in 2008 to bolster the film industry has been the growth of entertainment-related labor unions.

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Jeff Bennett, the deputy general counsel and associate executive editor of SAG-AFTRA says that the number of Georgia residents who have found union-covered work has increased 90% since its theatrical collective bargaining agreement in 2009.

The growth of the entertainment industry in Georgia has translated into increased union jobs for construction set builders, glaziers, hairdressers, and Teamster truck drivers who help move equipment and trailers to film sites, according to Lee Thomas, the director of the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Division.

Thomas says that industry growth has helped unemployed workers move into new careers and encouraged out-of-state film and television employees to relocate to Georgia.

The nationwide union outlook, on the other hand, was particularly bleak in 2012. Union membership declined in 37 states, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and total membership dropped from 11.8% to 11.3% of employed workers in 2012. Prospects for a national union comeback appear dim, according to Barry Hirsch, a labor economist at Georgia State. Hirsch suggests that the percentage of American union members could fall to as low as 9% (Another two points) before leveling off in the next few years.

Georgia was just one of 13 states (along with the District of Columbia) to see some union growth in 2012. Union membership climbed from 153,000 (3.9% of the state's employed workers) in 2011, to 171,000 (4.4%) in 2012, according to the BLS data.

Membership in the state's International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, (IATSE) the union that represents film and television technicians and artisans, has skyrocketed in recent years, according to Bob Vazquez, the president of Local 479.

Before the 2008 film and TV tax incentives, Local 479 had about 300 members statewide. Today, Vazquez says that membership is hovering at about 1,800, with 30 to 40 new members applying to join every month.

"It's been really wonderful, we were dying here, some people were giving up and leaving the business," Vazquez says. "I didn't work in Georgia for seven years."

Vazquez and his wife Kathleen Tonkin are both studio mechanics who work on special effects for television and film. Before 2008, he was traveling to Louisiana, Florida, and Virginia for production jobs. He's currently working on multiple productions in the Atlanta area, including the upcoming AMC series Halt and Catch Fire.

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Vazquez says his union has a surprisingly strong relationship with the Republican state legislature and calls GOP Congressman Rick Stephens one of the union's "biggest fans."

The comfortable relationship between mostly anti-union Republicans and the state's entertainment unions is largely driven by money and jobs, experts say.

Productions in Georgia generated an economic impact of $3.1 billion in fiscal year 2012, a 29% increase from 2011, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The entertainment industry was responsible for $879 million in direct spending in 2012, a record investment according to the department.

Between July 2011 and June 2012, 333 feature films, television movies, commercials, and music videos were shot in the state including The Walking Dead, Drop Dead Diva, and The Vampire Diaries. Georgia ranks in the top five states in film production, according to the state's department of economic development.

Backers say a new production studio in Fayette County (south of Atlanta) will bring in even more jobs and is slated to become the state's largest production facility, with five soundstages on 288 acres. It will be run by London-based Pinewood Studios and is expected to open in January 2014.

As part of a partnership between the local ITASPE union and Clayton State University, the new studio will host a training program for aspiring production technicians to accommodate Georgia's production boom.

Charlie Flemming, president of the Georgia AFL-CIO, admits that Georgia unions have always struggled but is pleased by the recent entertainment industry gains. He says that the Teamsters have made inroads at Screen Gem Studios in Atlanta, and that there's been discussion about building a new production facility in Savannah. Film director Tyler Perry has his own 200,000-square-foot studio in Atlanta, and there are reports that he's planning to expand.

"We've been able to survive and grow in the Deep South, even as right-wing Republicans try to put us out of business," says Flemming about union status in Georgia. "We've been here 125 years, and we're not going away."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the SAG AFTRA union experienced a 46% increase in membership among Georgia residents from 2009 to 2012. The statistic, which has since been revised by SAG AFTRA to 90%, represents the increase in union-covered jobs in Georgia between 2009 and 2012.

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