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Union Roundup

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If some of the rituals of fall involve walking the fine line between life and death (i.e., Halloween, Day of the Dead, even Yom Kippur) and unmasking oneself to rejoin the world of the living (those same holidays again), well, the unmasking, certainly, is happening at breakneck speed.We don’t just mean the current revelations about the true yearnings of certain GOP Congressmen—after all, almost all extremist politics are based on some form of “projection,” that is ascribing to someone else that which you fear in yourself. Rather, the hard truth of the current administration’s real agenda is becoming more grimly clear with each passing day.And believe it or not, we’re not just referring to the recent Military Commissions Act either, passed with the help of congressional Democratic enablers, which abolishes 900 years of habeas corpus precedent and gives the current occupant of the White House the power to whisk someone away on his say-so, without any guarantees of charges being filed, a speedy trial, or even access to a lawyer.No, we’re referring here to the also recent ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, which has the potential of stripping away the right to unionize—or stay in a union—from millions of currently protected, or union-eligible workers.Writing for the AFL-CIO’s homepage, labor blogger James Parks describes it thusly: “The NLRB ruled on three cases, collectively known as ‘Kentucky River,’ but it’s the lead case Oakwood Healthcare Inc. that creates a new definition of supervisor. Dozens of cases involving the definition of supervisor now before the NLRB will be sent back, with employers having the option to craft arguments that will meet the new definition of supervisor and limit the number of workers who can join a union.“Although the Oakwood decision covers only nurses, the expanded definition of supervisors means up to 8 million workers, including nurses, building trades workers, newspaper and television employees and others may be barred from joining unions.”In other words, if anybody reading this has ever “supervised” someone on the set of a film or TV show, well, buster, consider yourself an “outside agitator” now, if you still think you’re deserving of union protection.We will write after the midterm elections on the prospects of such egregious rulings being reversed anytime in the near future.But of course, we must also note that simply having a union doesn’t always guarantee protection in the workplace either.Such is the contention of the multiply-honored, and consistently outspoken Haskell Wexler, that DP of some renown who is the driving/producing/directing force behind the documentary Who Needs Sleep?, currently available on DVD, and chronicling, in alarming fashion, the toll of brutal working hours on Hollywood’s labor force.Not only in the broken marriages, lost time with children, and general malaise that comes from working too many 18-hour days (“Your immune system is fucked,” Wexler notes, “if you’re going to get something, you’re going to get it faster and harder”), but in actual lives lost, per the on-set accidents, and the ones driving home.It was, of course, the death of camera assistant Brent Hershman, a young father who exhaustedly ran off the road after one such grueling day that prompted much official hand-wringing, and even an alleged “Brent’s Rule” that was supposed to limit the brutalizing effect of unchecked work hours, “golden time” notwithstanding.In Sleep, Wexler chronicles both the physical toll that sleep deprivation takes on not just entertainment biz workers, but overtaxed Americans in general (those in “old Europe,” it should be noted, tend to work more reasonable hours, but recall, they had the good sense to kick their Puritans out), while also charting the lip service—and little else—paid to the idea of “Brent’s Rule.” [For the strict labor rules applying to France’s film industry, read Jack Egan’s “Paris: City of Lights, Camera, Action” on page 8 of this issue.]In waking, off-screen life, Wexler has kept at it, pushing for fatigue to be, in his words, “listed as a safety hazard on all safety bulletins,” so that studios would have to specifically address the issue of hours. (There are wide-ranging issues that column space may not allow us to fully examine, comparing the basically “reasonable” film town hours of the ’50s and ’60s to the ravaging schedules of today, which touch on raises-being-couched-in-overtime, studios-being-owned-by-multinational-corporations, and a host of other “modern economy” issues.)But Wexler lately has been surprised to find some pushing back. From his union.His comments were directed to Tim Wade, an IATSE employee and the chairman of the union’s Safety Committee. Wade, however, eventually claimed that Wexler was so relentlessly pursuing this particular safety angle that he filed a grievance with his own union, as an office employee for Local 600. The charges, Wexler recounts, were that “I made the office a non-conducive place of work,” and “I engaged in a pattern of behavior,” designed, evidently, to make Mr. Wade’s workday a sour one.Wade’s own union, the Office of Professional Employee International Union (OPEIU), wrote to Local 600 saying that Mr. Wade felt harassed by Wexler’s ongoing requests, and an imbroglio ensued, at least, of the paper-trail variety.600’s Bruce Doering, writing to OPEIU this past summer, noted that “in the absence of specific evidence demonstrating exactly what… Wexler may have allegedly done or not done, etc., Local 600 has no reason to proceed any further with this matter.”In other words, Mr. Wade may well have had a case of the vapors. Or perhaps, it was all a stalling maneuver so that no action would ever have to be taken on fatigue issues. Indeed, when Wexler confronts IATSE Tom Short, Michael Moore-like, in his documentary, Short tells him to talk to “the head [meaning Short himself],” as opposed to lesser beings, at the same time opining for the cameras that he thought the matter was taken care of. Hadn’t Haskell pursued the usual channels?Mr. Wade, on the other hand, helpfully provided Wexler with an up-to-date phone number for Mr. Short. “Clearly,” Wexler wrote Wade at one point, “your number is more current than mine.”Which is where the matter still stands: Successfully obfuscated, mired in bureaucratic wrangling, with over-tired film workers still haunting the early morning roadways of Los Angeles, each one, in their moments of lucidity, hoping to avoid becoming the next sleep-deprived statistic.Write Union Roundup: [email protected]

Written by Mark London Williams

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