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ICG Turns Down IA Contract

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Will members of the International Cinematographers Guild vote to turn down the new three-year contract between the IA and the producers because of a contentious provision that threatens to curtail the use of camera operators on film and television shoots? And will any of the other 17 entertainment unions covered by the same contract do the same?These questions hovered as union members in mid February prepared to vote yea or nay on the new Basic Agreement concluded between the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. As this issue of Below the Line was heading to press, the answer to the first question was “quite possibly,” but “highly unlikely” was the answer to the second.In a last-ditch effort to soften the wording of the controversial clause, negotiators for the 5,700-member ICG were engaged in frantic final talks with AMPTP but the clock was close to running out. Ballots were being readied for mailing and IA president Thomas Short was set to officially sign a memorandum of understanding agreeing to the terms negotiated. Ballots must be back by March 7 and representatives of the locals will meet March 9 to cast their allotted votes, based on each union’s results.Meanwhile members of the ICG and the other unions were being advised that turning down the contract would not necessarily lead to a return to the negotiating table to iron out problems like the camera operators issue but should be viewed as tantamount to a strike vote.Under IA procedures, a single union’s “no” vote cannot derail the overall approval process for the new Basic, which would go into effect this August and run into the summer of 2009. “Local 600 by itself doesn’t have the ability to turn anything down,” Short told Below the Line. “We work like the electoral college, with each union having a certain number of votes, and they’d have to get most of the other 17 unions to go along and, frankly, that’s just not going to happen. The leadership of the ICG has pretty much isolated itself from the rest of the bargaining unit.”However, to quiet down some of the tumult, Short, at a meeting of the IA’s executive board in Tampa in early February, sought to assure members of Local 600 that if producers under the new contract turned their right to request DPs to operate a camera into a coercive condition of employment, “then the deal was off,” according to one of the IA officials present.Despite the assurances from Short, many camera operators see the change embodied in the contract as setting the stage for their demise. “Many people think that in our industry it will become a condition of employment regardless of how hard people try to not let it become one,” said Tom Weston, a national vice president of the ICG and also a camera operator. “It will just simply happen. Decisions like this are made not by production managers and producers, but people who are trying to [improve] the bottom line. And they will simply see, we can save a certain number of dollars a week if the director of photography operates, without a concern for how much a camera operator can actually save a production.”The ability of the ICG to persuade members of other unions to vote against the contract is also made more difficult by the guild’s own negotiating team having signed off on the deal, which accepted the understanding that producers could ask a director of photography to operate the camera on a film—or one of two cameras on a television show—without having to automatically hire a camera operator in those circumstances.Should a majority of the members of Local 600 indeed vote to turn down the contract, the cinematographer guild’s rank and file will be reversing the recommendation of its own leadership since both ICG president Gary Dunham and executive director Bruce Doering agreed to the deal that many camera operators feel will give a free hand to budget-minded producers to eliminate their positions as a way to save money.Short noted that both Dunham and Doering had assented to the producer’s request that they be allowed to ask directors of photography to operate because the alternative to giving in was to lose Local 600’s ability to deduct dues from members’ paychecks. “In the end it came down to two issues—the producers said they were going to get rid of the side letter for dues check-offs, which only the ICG has, or the DP was going to be allowed to operate,” said the IA president. “The decision was made by Gary and Bruce on behalf of Local 600; [they] were more interested in collecting dues than protecting the camera operators. Gary was at the table, and I said, ‘Is this OK with you?’ and Gary said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Fine.’”The ICG president and executive director both declined repeated requests to respond to questions from Below the Line. A spokesman for them said that “it was not the policy of Local 600 to comment on contract talks when negotiations are still taking place.”Dunham and Doering had defended the contract before a two-day meeting of the ICG’s national executive board in late January, but were roundly repudiated when the board, the union’s ultimate governing body, voted unanimously to recommend a “no” vote on the IA-AMPTP agreement. “Gary Dunham argued that it was the best offer we were going to get, and kept painting doomsday scenarios of what would happen if they didn’t accept the provision,” recalled Dave Frederick, head of the Society of Camera Operators, who attended the session.“This issue of asking directors of photography to operate the camera while making camera operators optional has come up repeatedly at previous negotiations over the past 20 years, and each time it got taken off the table,” Frederick noted. “But this time around the producers sensed weakness in the cinematographers, because Local 600 had become alienated from other unions, and a split had developed between Tom Short and Gary Dunham.”A gulf between Dunham and Short developed over the ICG president’s attempt to enlist Local 600 in officially backing an effort by the Film and Television Action Committee to bring a trade action against Canada and other countries for allegedly subsidizing their film industries unfairly in order to attract runaway production from the US. Such a trade action is anathema to Short, in large part because Canadian guilds are part of IATSE.In June an effort by Dunham to get backing from the ICG board for a trade filing backfired when the union’s national executive board narrowly turned down the proposal. At the time concerns were expressed that Dunham’s actions in support of FTAC could harm Local 600’s negotiating agenda in the upcoming contract talks.“Those of us who defeated the FTAC proposal felt strongly that it would damage our position at the upcoming International Convention and most importantly at the Basic Agreement negotiations coming up this fall,” director of photography Steven Poster, ASC, and a member of the ICG’s governing board said at the time. “We were very concerned that without Short’s support we might lose mandatory staffing of operators.”George Spiro Dibie, ASC, who preceded Dunham as ICG president, said that the issue of eliminating such mandatory staffing “was brought up by the producers every three years in every negotiation when I was president and we fought like hell to protect the camera operators.”He said the failure to achieve the same the result in the most recent contract may have been due to the absence of sufficient preparations for the talks, letting the camera operator issue stay unresolved after the first or “local” round of negotiations concluded, and Dunham’s taking on Short at the IA’s quadrennial conventi
on last July in Hawaii when he backed a resolution calling for Short’s salary to be frozen.“You don’t go onto the convention floor and say Tom Short, the head of the IA, shouldn’t get a three-percent salary increase, which all of us get as union members,” Dibie commented. “You want him to fight for your members 110-percent but you want to oppose giving him a raise?”As for preparing for talks, “I started at least six months to a year in advance, meeting with the IA and Tom Short or whoever was the head of it at the time,” said Dibie. “I got together with them at least 15 to 20 times and let them know our problems and told them what I heard the producers were after in certain areas that involved our union. I built up a lot of alliances and rapport with the other locals and, yes, even with some of the producers.”Dibie said that permitting the question of camera operator staffing to persist as an open issue when the second or “general” round of negotiations with AMPTP started was a mistake. “I never took my proposals to the ‘general’ because there you are screwed,” he added. “I made sure we solved all our problems at the ‘local’ level, because in the second round, the 17 other locals start dealing with your problems.”A top union official who was involved in the December talks and asked not to be identified concurred in that assessment: “One of the defects of the system we negotiate under is that the producers can really pick out one local and say we want X, and if they stick with it, and the local can’t find a way to negotiate around it, they can be skewered. Other locals are not going to recommend to their members to go on strike on any other local’s issue.”Beyond the internecine backbiting between ICG and IA factions, criticism has been leveled at the handful of directors of photography who choose to be their own camera operators.The cinematographers who are being singled out because they like to operate feel they are being blamed unfairly. “I’ve always had an operator on my films and I’ve always been supportive of that position and I’m just aghast that the union gave that away,” said Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC.Deakins comes from a documentary background and feels comfortable operating, which he did on last fall’s Jarhead. “I think there should be freedom to work the way you want on a project, but it will be a shame if now, because of budget pressures, DPs will be forced to operate.” He was skeptical about IA president Tom Short’s statement that he would not permit producers to force DPs to operate. “How can Tom Short say that if it’s coercive we’ll do something about it? How can they prove it’s coercive or not? It’s pretty much a mess.”Another cinematographer who prefers to operate under the proper circumstances is Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, who was DP on Brokeback Mountain. “I definitely had a camera operator on that film, though I was operating most of the time,” he said. “I think the camera operator’s work is essential, and it would be a sad trend if there was pressure to phase them out for budgetary reasons.” But given the recent negotiations, even if a cinematographer gets their way and insists on the hiring of an operator, “producers are going to say you can have your operator but then we’ve got to save money other ways and you can’t have this lighting and this equipment,” he concludes.A more optimistic assessment of the uncertain situation is that producers will realize that camera operators are not a drain on a production but save valuable time and money with their unique set of skills. “It’s maybe a situation where the producers will realize they’re being penny wise but pound foolish,” commented Alan Daviau, ASC. “Because I don’t think it’s going to save them any money.”

Written by Jack Egan

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