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Union Roundup – May 2004

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By Mark London Williams
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, ASC is no stranger to politics. Medium Cool, the late-’60s, by-the-bootstraps classic that he directed and shot, documented how society frays in all directions when its “leaders” don’t take care of business. In terms of International Cinematographers Guild politics in Local 600, Wexler is no longer behind the camera, but squarely in front of it, having been re-elected as second national VP, as part of a slate calling itself the Coalition for a Democratic Union.
CDU’s bigger coup was getting Gary Dunham elected as president of the local, upsetting favorite Stephen Lighthill, ASC. Lighthill had been blessed by the powers-that-be—which is to say, retiring 600 prez George Spiro Dibie, ASC. But the general reason for the surprise vote—Dunham won by about a 4% margin—were that the leaders weren’t taking care of business.
The business, in this case, involved runaway production. Dibie was accused of not taking the issue seriously enough, especially when he upbraided House member Diane Watson for a letter to Jack Valenti—co-signed by 39 other congressfolk—that demanded some answers about why U.S.-produced films were lensing in Canada. Instead of agreeing with Watson, Dibie was more concerned with who was controlling the dialogue: he was upset Watson didn’t seek, as it were, “script approval” from Hollywood union leaders—like him—before publicizing the missive.
This became Dibie’s “George Bush” moment—referring here to the father of the current White House occupant—when the then-President went “shopping” at a grocery store, just like the “common folk” he wanted to have vote for him, and tipped to the press, and the world, that he had no true idea how much things cost, or what the shape of the “real” economy—the one on the streets —was.
Thus Dibie proved himself out of touch with a majority of Local 600’s voters (though we should note that current estimates are that only about 30% of eligible members voted). Those moved to cast ballots thought, hey, maybe we should be helping Watson get some answers from the corporate heads of today’s conglomerate “studio divisions,” instead of getting mad at her. So when Dibie passed his torch on to Lighthill, the runes in the flames similarly read “out of touch.”
Dunham advocates being open to tactics that go beyond the simple lobbying for Federal legislation. Though he doesn’t specify what those tactics are, they seem to hint at confrontational strategies that labor has shied away from in recent years, though nothing nearly as pronounced as the riots breaking out at the ’68 Democratic convention, which Wexler used as his prism.
Still, Wexler was telling a story about a time when leaders—Republicans and ostensibly labor-friendly Democrats—didn’t “get it,” either. Will presumptive Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry get the message that eluded both Dibie and Lighthill?
Canada’s own Toronto Globe and Mail thinks so, with its business columnist Barrie McKenna writing that “Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush’s Democratic rival and a long-time Massachusetts senator, has been relentlessly mining growing angst among many Americans about free trade and the flight overseas of U.S. jobs. Put into practice, Mr. Kerry’s tough talk would be disastrous for Canadian businesses, which depend heavily on barrier-free access to the enormous U.S. market.”
Depending on how labor leaders like Dunham—and his peers in and out of show business—can shape the domestic political agenda, though, that access may not remain so free of “barriers.” And the medium cool of the current climate of labor politics may ratchet up in heat, a degree or two.
Meanwhile: Members of IATSE Local 44, the local for set decorators, prop makers, people o’ the greens, and such, are wishing they could have electoral resolution, upsets or otherwise, themselves. They are involved in a contretemps worthy of Florida itself, where over 100 names of members from that local were deemed to be “ineligible” to vote—after they’d already cast ballots. The dust-up involved dues, reinstatements, and the like—think basic “did you register in time?” eligibility in general election terms—and the upshot is that several races need to be redone.
Unlike the more infamous example from Florida, the word from 44 is that they’re determined to get it right—first running “rerun” elections for the offices where the number of ballots could affect the outcome (including the business rep and president slots), and then, once all legit votes are counted, runoffs later this summer, when and where required.
Union Roundup will keep you apprised of developments. And we’ll also be discussing fallout from what a certain above-the-line guild (hint: initials WGA) decides in terms of its proclamation that it’s time for a showdown on the issue of DVD residuals. Which is great, if you’re theoretically eligible for such residuals.
Until then, keep your cool. Medium or otherwise.

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