Slate Article About Film Projectionists Provides Insight Into Occupational Licensing
A Slate article about the decline of the film projectionist profession provides insight into the real reasons for occupational licensing standards. From the story (emphasis added):
Platters appeared in the mid-’70s and, suddenly, instead of two projectors showing individual 20-minute reels of film, projectionists were taking all the individual reels and building them into one monster reel that lay on its side on a spinning platter, and the entire film would feed through a single projector. Films would still have to be built—assembled from individual reels into platters—but with no need for reel changes and a consistent light source, projectionists were no longer needed to run the movies. The unions tried to hold back the inevitable, but chain theaters wanted to get away from expensive union contracts, and the first thing to go were licensing standards.
“Giuliani came in and started to change things to be more favorable to management, and we sensed it was going to be a problem,” Rivierzo says. “They wanted to get rid of the projectionist license completely. We fought it at city council, and eventually what they did was water down the test so anyone could pass it.”
“Before, you used to have to take a 100-question exam to become a licensed projectionist,” Ramos says. “And you had to know electricity, you had to know your currents and your storage and so forth, and you also took a practical exam. But they dumbed it down to a 40-question exam, and the department of consumer affairs took over testing rather than the bureau of gas and electricity. So managers were able to get their license and run the theater, run the box office, run everything, for ten bucks an hour.“
This is a pretty clear example of unions using licensing standards to protect jobs which are being threatened (or eliminated) by technological improvements. If it were up to the union in this story, theaters would still be required to follow the old projectionist rules despite the fact that technology has made the old job pointless in most cases. Some union jobs would have been maintained, albeit at a higher and totally unnecessary cost to filmgoers. They used political power to fight the advance of technology as much as they could. Using the term “dumbed it down” in reference to the test is absurd, because the test only eliminated the necessity of knowing information that was no longer applicable to the new technology.
This is, of course, a familiar story. We are seeing it play out right now with HVAC licensing in St. Louis County. Business down because of the recession? Expand licensing, claim you are protecting safety, and drive your small or non-union competitors out of business. “Drive out of business” may be an exaggeration in this instance, though, because the protectionism here entails more of a restriction on how non-licensed competitors can grow their businesses, by restricting what they can work on. It also prevents future competition by making it harder for people to enter the market in the first place.
Occupational licensing serves primarily to protect the interests of the people already working within an occupation. It always has, and always will.