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Union Roundup: Out with the New, In with the Old


UnionsCollectedLogoThe holiday homestretch is almost upon us, and we’ll be taking a few of the ensuing days off, so the next time we see you in this columnar space will be a little deeper into December. We’re also undergoing a name change, from “Strike Alert,” since, it would appear the main specter of a labor stoppage that hung over both literal (and metaphorical) Hollywood, has indeed, been “averted.” Certainly, for now.

But much still remains to contemplate, as we shift our title back to “Union Roundup,” (and by “back,” we mean a much earlier incarnation, from pre-plague America, back when people in all 50 states could still vote, and when the genesis of this publication was found on paper, as opposed to the later, usurping digits).

With that shift, we will of course still be talking about the “Hollywood specific,” including the culture of work life on set, in post, and wherever must-we-keeping-calling-it-”content” is being made, for pipelines owned by increasingly large conglomerates.

Some of you have already reached out with stories about conditions, potential hazards, etc., on the sets, and in the production offices, you’re in. We appreciate the feedback, the leads and tips, and continue to follow up on them.

Amazon LogoIn addition, we’ll also be talking a lot about the “context” of that work, too, which will often  take the discussion beyond the Thirty-Mile Zone.  One such example is the imminent Black Friday ritual. That emblematic, frenzied, day may be worth keeping an eye on, as Amazon workers are planning stoppages and more, to get the behemoth (on whose sets many of the now-returning IA members will be working) to, well, take their workers more seriously, with events worldwide planned by the Make Amazon Pay Coalition.

Planned events include, so far, actual delivery and warehouse slowdowns in parts of Europe, garment worker protests in Bangladesh and Cambodia, and more informational picketing here in the U.S., at Whole Foods stores, distribution centers, and other locales.

It’s not strictly a wage issue either — though the notion of better wages is definitely part of it, along with other issues like environmental sustainability, and, yes, the right to organize, and unionize.

The fact that this is the second Make Amazon Pay day, means not too many wrenches were actually thrown into Bezos’ gears at this time last year, but the current narrative about growing labor movements is that this is all part of a longer project.

Sean O'Brien
Sean O’Brien (Photo: Teamsters)

And if Black Friday protests don’t work, then newly elected Teamster President Sean O’Brien has vowed to take on those organizing efforts, to bring Amazon drivers and warehouse workers under the umbrella of what is still the largest private sector union in the country.

O’Brien won, beating the establishment pick to succeed James Hoffa (no, not that one, but his son, a lawyer, who has overseen the union for nearly a quarter-century). Here’s where that election becomes interesting, viewed through a Hollywood labor prism:

One of the main issues fueling O’Brien’s campaign was that the last major contract negotiated by the Teamsters, with UPS, was a raw deal for workers, and the rank-and-file seemed to agree, with 54% voting it down. 

And yet, because of Teamster rules, since less than two-thirds of eligible members voted, Hoffa was allowed to go ahead and implement that contract anyway — again, despite the fact that a majority of membership had voted against it.

With another contract negotiation coming due in 2023, O’Brien vowed to play actual hardball with UPS, telling CNN that they were going to make the company “an example. Striking is a last resort, but if a company is not negotiating in good faith, we’re going to get what our members deserve… (They’re) thirsty for change in leadership, and they’re disappointed in the last contract. Everyone wants to get what was coming to them.”

Crystal Hopkins
Crystal Hopkins (IATSE Local 871)

Whether similar sentiments will be at play when it comes time for the next IATSE elections remains to be seen, of course — though since IA President Matthew Loeb was recently reelected, the first signs of this may come with the local leadership elections this spring. In fact, some interesting shoots are popping up mid-winter already, as Crystal Hopkins, President of Local 871, the script supes and writers assistants, resigned her position. As she said in a statement to Deadline, while she praised the overall negotiations, “which make no mistake, took giant steps forward when compared to the history of our contracts, the leadership, myself included, kept our eyes on the targets we had been aiming for in May. But the membership had erected and created new targets – targets that I agree with. And on a very basic level of what a union stands for, should have been given more time and consideration. I could not in good conscience lead the membership of 871 through a ratification of this agreement.”

If things do genuinely feel like they’re getting better, and a cultural shift happens, then IA leadership can trumpet their achievements. Otherwise, if it feels like those “targets” remain elusive, not only Hopkins’ words, but O’Brien’s, may wind up haunting several industries, when he said, in a debate with rival candidate Steve Vairma, “If we’re negotiating concessionary contracts and we’re negotiating substandard agreements … why would any person want to join the Teamsters union?”

Again, at first blush the IA settlement seems more generally well-regarded that the UPS contract, particularly because of the employment “tiers” the latter allowed (oddly, subsequent “tiers” of CEOs aren’t commanded to work for less pay), but it remains to be seen whether the various “cultural” issues have been successfully addressed. 

There will undoubtedly be safety issues added to the next round of IA contracts, too, — particularly on the arms and armorer front — but some of these will likely also be addressed legislatively in the new  year.

Dariusz Wolski
Dariusz Wolski (Courtesy Wolski)

Readers here would have seen BTL Editor Edward Douglas’ interview with renowned Cinematographer Darius Wolski, currently in the nomination hunt for both The Last Duel and House of Gucci. He was also behind the camera, at the outset of his career, on The Crow, with its own notorious case of manslaughter, with  the shooting of Brandon Lee. “When I read about what happened in New Mexico, it’s kind of similar,” he told Douglas. “It’s basically negligence. You make low-budget films, and you really cut corners. You hire people that are inexpensive and inexperienced — [those two things] come together.” He adds that they were all “very young” then,  “so we had all this energy to work 14-15 hours a day, but the bottom line was there was just not enough money to do it safely, that’s all. That’s the bottom line. Crow was a non-union film. In those days, the reality was that North Carolina was a right-to-work state. There was no law that an armorer had to be on the set.”

The idea of the potential hazards of non-union work also comes into play on the Teamster side — especially given that most trucking is non-union, though the issues haven’t, so far, included untimely workplace death.

Ryan Johnson
Ryan Johnson

In an earlier column, we quoted Teamster Ryan Johnson, who writes from an insider perspective for Medium, who talked about how the prevalence of “independent contractors” have helped contribute to the country’s current supply chain woes: 

“I’m fortunate enough to be a Teamster — a union driver — an employee paid by the hour. Most port drivers are ‘independent contractors’, leased onto a carrier who is paying them by the load. Whether their load takes two hours, fourteen hours, or three days to complete, they get paid the same, and they have to pay 90% of their truck operating expenses (the carrier might pay the other 10%, but usually less.)

“I honestly don’t understand how many of them can even afford to show up for work. There’s no guarantee of ANY wage (not even minimum wage), and in many cases, these drivers make far below minimum wage. In some cases they work 70 hour weeks and still end up owing money to their carrier.”

The bottom line, he notes, is that “while carriers were charging increased pandemic shipping rates, none of those rate increases went to the driver wages. Many drivers simply quit. However, while the pickup rate for containers severely decreased, they were still being offloaded from the boats. And it’s only gotten worse.”

This is not to be naive about Teamster history, of course, (or even IATSE’s past, for that matter), but in an era with such profound inequalities in incomes, work conditions, etc., between owners, companies, and employees, it’s clear that if one works for a living, unions help. Based on the uptick in actual walkouts, or the threats of same, and even the first blush rejection of some contracts negotiated by leadership in those unions (it took a couple of rounds of proposed — and rebuffed– settlements for the UAW to get its workers back to John Deere factories), it’s clear that an increasingly active membership wants their unions to help even more, wherever they’re located.

So, we may not be at the “Hollywood ending” of this process, after all, as IA leadership has touted. Indeed, in screenwriting terms, we may only now be entering the third act. 

Meanwhile, may your own dénouements be happy ones, and we’ll see you back here soon. 

MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London WilliamsStrike Alert Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.

Note: As mentioned at the top, Mark will be taking off next week, Tuesday, Nov. 3o, but we might have a guest columnist.

All photos courtesy of the respective copyright holders.

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