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IATSE President Matthew Loeb Looks to the Future

July 29, 2013 | By
Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb. (Photos by Van Redin and Ron Phillips).

Buoyant enthusiasm prevailed at the 67th IATSE Quadrennial Convention held last week in the heart of downtown Boston at the Sheraton Hotel and adjacent convention center. It was steady as you go as some 800 delegates, representing 400 locals, voted by acclamation to re-elect Matthew Loeb to another four-year term as International president of the world’s biggest entertainment union. Speakers included Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Loeb, who first became president in January 2008, met with Below the Line publisher Patrick Graham and senior writer Jack Egan after the conclusion of the meeting, to answer a broad range of questions about the IA present and future.

Below the Line: If we could start by asking you, where does the IA stand today?

Matthew Loeb: Where are we? Looking forward, as you can see from the theme of the convention – what we call the four pillars of success: leadership, skills and safety, activism and communication. We’re really trying to support the locals, especially the ones that don’t have the infrastructure to support themselves. And there are a lot of smaller locals that don’t have the wherewithal to do some of the things that make for success and strength. So we’re working to help set up communications programs and to have a robust social media machine to support activism, politics and organizing, which are all important. The new training program has also been very well received.

We didn’t have a training program at all two years ago. After 118 years of being part of this extremely technical and artistic industry where you would think training would be at the core of what we do, we now actually have a training program.

And that brings us back to the locals. Some of them already have their own developed and very good training programs, while others have nothing. So we’re providing an umbrella for them. And maintaining job skills relates directly to organizing. We have to be the best trained, most accessible and available workforce around, because there’s a lot of non-union competition out there.

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(Photos by Van Redin and Ron Phillips).

BTL: What kinds of frustrations have you faced in your four years as International president?

Loeb: There can be a lot of things I have to deal with at once, but I’m not that frustrated, I have to tell you. But then there’s the social environment. The attacks on labor are obviously a challenge more than just frustrating. Our quote-unquote friends in Washington haven’t been as supportive as I would like. The Employee Free Choice Act [to facilitate organizing by labor] wasn’t passed. And though the Affordable Care Act is a good thing, it’s not what we hoped for nor expected. And the anti-labor attacks in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio are an existential threat to unions that is now spreading to Canada as well.

There’s fear and there’s frustration, but we’ve used it to inspire more activism. And I think this feeling of unity and solidarity you’ve seen at the convention is also driven by those attacks. The internal stuff becomes secondary when you have a real clear opponent that is trying to tear you apart.

BTL: You had a pretty good contract negotiation with the studios on the Hollywood Basic Agreement in 2012. At a time when many unions are being forced into givebacks, what was concluded seemed like a good contract.

LR-IMG_6131Loeb: I think it was a good contract. And I think we’re doing okay bargaining because we’re continuing to grow in numbers. The American labor movement lost 1.5 million members starting with the recession and the attacks that have followed. But we’re actually continuing to gain members. Not at a blistering pace – but a northeast curve on the chart is what you’re looking for, and that’s what we’ve had, which is extraordinary and which adds to our bargaining power. Our relations with the studios are decent, though there are bumps in the road.

BTL: The studios seemed to be fairly positive compared to previous years, at least in what they said after the new contract was reached. And they did step up, funding the deficits that had built up.

Loeb: They put a lot of money into the contract to solve the health-care and pension funding problem. But I would suggest that they didn’t give us anything that we couldn’t have bargained for considering the strength we had. They were fair at the table. They want stability and we do too.

BTL: Is it important that you actually grow in membership, given that the industry is only turning out so much product? It seems that by just not shrinking is a win right there.

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(Photos by Van Redin and Ron Phillips).

Loeb: You could view it that way. Is it important that the IA grows? My answer is definitely yes. As long as there are non-union venues out there in stagecraft or in motion picture production, or in visual effects where workers aren’t organized, and as long as reality TV keeps changing all the time we need to keep organizing. Even if there’s not more product there’s different product and we have to go get it. There’s a shift in what some of the work looks like. Some of our people are already shifting – but new people are coming in as well. And I think there are more outlets. If you look at what’s happening with television overseas, the appetite there is going to get satisfied by more production.

BTL: Besides the disruptive nature of technology, there are new ways entertainment is being delivered such as streaming and on demand platforms. How is it affecting the remuneration of IA unions?

Loeb: We, like all the entertainment unions and guilds, have a “new media” recognition agreement with the studios, but the conditions have not been fleshed out. I expect in the next bargaining round that you’re going to see everybody including us try to flesh them out. But I can tell you that, so far, the amount of new media work is de minimus. We’re talking about 1.5/1000 of the hours in Hollywood that fall under the studios’ new media agreement contract. In other areas, not counting New York, what we call the area standards agreement there, amounted to something like 31 days over the whole term of the three-year contract.

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(Photos by Van Redin and Ron Phillips).

That’s not all of the new media work that is being done. We organize or make deals with Netflix, Hulu, or whoever else is doing their own new production, separate from the studio deal, and we’ve done fine on that. We basically have the same production methods, we do budget-based agreements like we have been doing. We have laid the path to get the same conditions from the studios. But the hours from the studios are still very, very low.

BTL: Do you as IA president pay special attention to what is going on with the 16 Hollywood unions, or are all of the IA unions in the same basket as far as you’re concerned?

Loeb: We have almost 400 locals and I pay attention to all of them. I have a fantastic vice president for the West Coast office, Mike Miller. I’m in L.A. probably once a month. I am a director of the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans; I’m the chief negotiator for all the major agreements, the Hollywood Basic contract, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers contract. So I do pay quite a bit of attention to all of the Hollywood locals and they represent roughly a third of our membership.

BTL: A big issue these days in Los Angeles is production that is not taking place in Hollywood that used to. But it may be taking place in another state. Are you backing up the Hollywood guilds on that issue, or is it something you take sides on? Are you trying to get more work for Hollywood?

Matthew Loeb with US Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren

Matthew Loeb with US Senator from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren. (Photos by Van Redin and Ron Phillips).

Loeb: It’s up to the locals wherever they are to do whatever that they can do to get work for their members. And that means the Hollywood locals need to do what they can do in Sacramento in terms of state backing. I think they can ramp that up. Eric Garcetti, the new Los Angeles mayor, has also talked about giving more backing. But to the extent that our members need work, we support work everywhere. It’s up to the locals in their jurisdictions to get out and lobby.

BTL: What do you think about all of these state incentives?

Loeb: You should ask some of these Hollywood locals what they think. A lot of their members work in those other places.

BTL: But what do you think of the proliferation of incentives, where states are being played off against each other by producers so the states can attract shoots by boosting their incentives.

Loeb: I’m not going to guess what other people think. I can tell you that the hours worked in Los Angeles – the shift away from big features and the hour-long shows have pretty much migrated. However, the half-hour episodics are still primarily in LA. According to the time worked as calculated for contribution into the pension and health plans, these have met the projections consistently and haven’t gone down. It’s not a commentary on what wages are necessarily, and we’re going to study that, but as far as hours worked in Hollywood, that remains pretty static.

BTL: But wages some say are not remaining static – union members say they’re earning less these days.

Matthew Loeb with the Honorable Hilda Solis and Nick Wyman, president of Actor's Equity.

Matthew Loeb with the Honorable Hilda Solis and Nick Wyman, president of Actor’s Equity. (Photos by Van Redin and Ron Phillips).

Loeb: That has to do with the shift in types of productions I mentioned. We have to look at what they’re working on. Is it low budget work? Is it new media work? Is it reality work? Where are the dollars being earned and by what amount? I can’t give you an educated answer, at least not yet.

BTL: This is your second convention as president. What were the highlights for you?

Loeb: The high point for me is what we’re offering that is new. It’s what the attendees talked about here and want to bring back to their unions. It used to be we could talk about solidarity and strength and all kinds of rah rah. But this is meat and potatoes stuff, like the new training program. We’ll pay for leadership education for our local unions so they can better represent their members. They know they can call us and we’re going to advise them and help them devise a social media campaign or a communications program, or teach them how to enable more activism. So whether it’s the city you’re in that controls the arena you’re trying to get into or whether it’s national political figures who have a lot to say about how we live, we’re giving them the tools to better the lives of their members.

BTL: There was one controversy here over the 120-day rule which requires someone to work at least 120 days over the past three years to run for a union office. Haskell Wexler, the Oscar winning cinematographer, had challenged the rule and the National Labor Relations Board ruled in his favor, but on a technicality.

Loeb: Let’s be clear. This is 120 days over three years. For this you can work 120 days for one year and not work for 2-1/2 years and still qualify. That’s pretty liberal. The delegates decided that for the stability of the union they want to have officers that have a nexus to the day-to-day business, who know the current trends and the technology as well as other changes to be their current leaders. They decided overwhelmingly in my view, though there wasn’t an actual count, with only a dozen or so people wanting to change that constitutional provision. Instead they voted to keep it, just as it was also passed four years ago by the same overwhelming numbers. That’s democracy in action by the members.

BTL: In terms of the elections that were held, everyone nominated including you for president were already on the board. And none of the 19 had an opponent. What does say about the IA?

Loeb: It says the members and the locals trust the International. They are happy with the way the ship is being steered and in what direction. And they are supportive. There is a general sense of satisfaction – not because the attendees are complacent or not paying attention. They’re very engaged and they’re happy with the leadership.

BTL: The IA has talked for a long time about organizing VFX workers. Where does that stand?

Loeb: We’re going to keep backing those folks up as long as they’re interested in being organized. When you look at the credits that run at the end of a film, you know how important visual effects work is. There are a lot of people who feel scared, as there are in any organizing drive. That’s especially the case when there’s something mobile they work on that can be outsourced to other places. Frankly, my opinion is that’s what we’ve always been told – that work will disappear and go elsewhere if we form a union. I think what’s going to have to happen is that the VFX folks are going to have stand up for themselves.

They are entitled to be represented and have some benefits. That’s the law. It’s a tough task, but there are some committed people. The employers do some of the job for us because they don’t treat them well. But they do have to stand up for themselves. That’s where all union organizing drives start. We’ve got to get past that fear. I don’t sit in the corporate office and decide where the work gets done. But when I see workers on the ground here doing artistic or technical trades for the motion picture industry I’m going to try and help them.

BTL: Besides VFX, what other organizing targets are still out there? Reality shows?

Loeb: We’re getting so much of that already. We are getting term agreements from big players like Freemantle, Reveille and Endemol. Those are the big producers. The organizing that’s going on is happening on really low-end work. We’re getting calls from crews to represent them on pictures budgeted as low as $400,000. But on a $400,000 picture it’s tough to make a deal. The benefits alone become a big piece of the budget. So we’re victims of our own success.

BTL: Let me ask you about health care benefits. You have really great ones. But to qualify you have to work 400 hours in any six-month period, plus deplete any hours you’ve got banked, to stay covered. As workers get older they even often find it harder to get that much work, and that’s at a time when they especially need health care. Can anything be done in that regard?

Loeb: The average movie crew works a 60-hour week. So you need to work seven weeks out of six months and you’re in the plan. You show me an industry with benefit plans of this caliber where you can work seven weeks in a half year and get that kind of plan. It doesn’t exist. We could lower that to 100 hours, but then we’d have to pass along increased monthly payments for everybody or cut benefits.

We have to represent the core of our working members. And we made choices from what they told us in the last round about how they wanted that plan to look. They said don’t change the benefits. We don’t mind paying a little bit more in deductibles. We asked that the hours not go up, and I committed to that, and the hours did not go up. The benefits were not cut at all for the first time in probably 15 years, and we came out of this with one of the best medical plans in the country at basically no cost if you’re a member.

BTL: It’s still a dilemma for those people who don’t get seven weeks and fall off the wagon with no health care coverage.

Loeb: I’ve answered your question. Seven weeks at 60 hours. That may be difficult for some, but it’s not a charity, it’s a business. We have to protect the core of our membership and we have to make decisions. And the 400-hour decision was bargained for and overwhelmingly approved by the membership in California.

We’re listening to what the members are saying. We held six town hall meetings in New York and L.A. I stood there in front of the membership and asked them what their concerns were. We sent out a professional survey, and digested it all, and came up with a bargaining plan based on what people wanted. It’s a democratic process full of information and data and also fully transparent about how we have to move forward.

BTL: You are on the AFL-CIO executive council and also a big supporter of Richard Trumka, who was recently re-elected as president of the organization. What are some of the things you are involved in?

Loeb: The big push now is repositioning how people see labor. You ask people how they feel about having a pension, and about having workers get together to make decisions and they are all thumbs up. But when you ask what they think about unions and you get a different answer. They did a job on us over the last 25 years, demonizing unions.

BTL: Where will the IA be five years from now?

Loeb: I have been elected to another four-year term so I’ll stick to that time frame. Putting aside what we don’t know – like what will the state of the economy be, what will global markets be like and what technology shifts will bring – my hope is that after folks leave here they will take these tools we’ve offered them that will let them strengthen things from the bottom up. Because that puts us in a stronger position at the negotiating table. I’d like to be in a position where we’re not in a benefits crisis, and where we can talk about protective terms and about safety, about the long hours people have to work, and other issues that our members bring to us. I’m not philosophically against good provisions to protect our people. Some people think we could have done more in last year’s negotiations. But we had this monster challenge to close the benefits and health care deficit. And in that we were totally successful.

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