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Union Roundup

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With the recent outing of Deep Throat of Watergate fame, we on the journalism side of things were left pining for the days of the reliable anonymous source—back when such sources would step forward to spill the beans on those in power. And back when the press—the mainstream press—would actually dare to report that the emperor, in fact, had no clothes (as opposed to today’s “how do you like that spiffy new suit?” while we all gaze at the same splotchy, naked skin).But just as we were pining, in perfect plot point fashion we at Below the Line received a tip from an anonymous source. And while not coming anywhere near the import of Deep Throat’s tip-offs, it did send us down the trail of an unfolding labor contretemps here in Hollywood, which had previously remained off the radar of not the mainstream press, but the trade press, a tangible edition of which you now hold in your hands.Fittingly, it happened on a Sunday afternoon: The fax machine clattered into action and out came a loud headline calling for readers to BOYCOTT PRODUCERS. “This is a request,” the missive said, “for all union members and their families to Boycott the Producers (sic) that use Cast & Crew Production Payroll, Inc. and EPSG Management Services.”A list of said producers included CBS, as the only network, along with all the big studios, and the beef in question was that “the two payroll companies listed above have been unfair by refusing to bargain with International Brotherhood of Electrical Works Local 40 for a successor agreement.”With a return fax number indicating it had been sent from the Staples just around the corner from the humble BTL mediaplex in Woodland Hills, the epistolary call-to-action was signed “By: The Committee for Industry Justice.”The Committee for Industry Justice! With a broad-based moniker like that, there’d be plenty of work for them to do. But, somewhat like the “Committees of Correspondence,” which formed as a run-up to the American revolution, this committee likewise refused to divulge not only the membership of the group (if it was indeed a group, and not just a protest-savvy rank-and-filer making use of his/her hiatus), but even the most rudimentary contact information.So we at Union Roundup proceeded to call IBEW Local 40, and its avuncular business manager, Rick DesJardins, who not only had never heard of the Committee for Industry Justice, but didn’t know someone was calling for a boycott in the local’s name. But he wasn’t totally shocked. “We’re going to put up ‘unfair labor’ pickets,” on sets all over town, when hiatus ends and cameras start to roll sometime in July.The issue, according to DesJardins, is that “the payroll companies wouldn’t negotiate with Local 40,” having “pulled out” of contract negotiations last year.“This is a play to get us out of production work,” he continued, noting that such work compromises about 25 percent of what keeps Local 40 members busy—the other 75 being facilities maintenance at places like Universal and elsewhere.The other side in the dispute—which is to say, the payroll companies and the studios they work for—see it differently. Generally not needing to resort to anonymous Sunday faxing (“The Committee for the Liberation of TransNational Capital?”), the management case was espoused by Alan Brunswick, a lawyer for the firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, who represents the Cast & Crew folks, says “there’s not really a dispute,” and that an agreement was reached some months ago.This agreement—which both Cast & Crew and EPSG agreed to—allows that “if our client wants to use union people, they can.”DesJardins calls this alleged agreement a “type of side letter, which was unacceptable. A substandard agreement between the parties,” which was not, however a “signed collective-bargaining agreement,” of the type that had previously lapsed.The Teamsters are behind him, DesJardins notes, along with all the other “basic craft services” that Local 40 represents—of the sound/electric/lighting variety. He states that “all the basic craft services” are threatened, if the payroll companies are contractually free to pay… nonunion workers on studio production sets.Of course, one of the interesting angles is that if the IBEW doesn’t have a contract for the work it traditionally does—involving wires, voltage, and such—some other union(s) could conceivably find itself the recipient of unexpected studio largesse.But why? Would other unions be easier to deal with than the IBEW? Is DesJardins right that this represents a beachhead in rolling back below-the-line union presence on working sets?“We will be picketing,” he adds, emphatically. And Union Roundup will be there to keep tracking this story, once the languorous, summer-afternoon anonymous faxing days of hiatus are behind us.Meanwhile: What does the recent French and Dutch rejection of a putative EU constitution mean on the “job flight” question for film production? The Euro dipped a little in the aftermath, and the dollar grew stronger—always meaning producers are more tempted to get additional “bang for their buck” when the buck buys… more bang.Richard Bernstein, writing in The New York Times, said, on the eve of the no vote, that “in France… the constitution has provoked a powerful fear that the European project is a sort of back door for what is called ‘liberalism,’ or ‘ultraliberalism’” Or it could be called “neoliberalism,” meaning Anglo-American-style free-market economics. This, many people are convinced, would strip away social protections and add to already high levels of unemployment.“The no camp has linked the constitution to the idea that Europe is unsocial and liberal,” according to Daniel Cohn-Bendit, cited in Bernstein’s article. Cohn-Bendit is a Green member of the EU Parliament, and former Parisian radical in the halcyon days of May ’68 in the City of Light. “So they think, if you smash the constitution, you smash liberalism.”In other words, one way to read the vote is a stand against the free-trade agreements, a backlash by French, and Dutch, workers (in France, the “yes” vote was once comfortably ahead in the polls) against the kind of global corporate free-flow capitalism espoused by, well, the US, for example.Does it represent the start of a growing backlash, or a small hiccup on the road—allowing, for the moment, roads to have hiccups—on the path to a worldwide corporate economy?More soon, on dollars, trade wars, and summer picket lines in Hollywood.

Written by Mark London Williams

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