By Jack Egan
It has been less than a month since Ronnie Cunningham resumed the reins as business agent for Local 44 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, following three and a half years out of office. But he hasn’t had much of a second honeymoon.
The U.S. Department of Labor recently subpoenaed records from the Property Craftpersons Union as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of past financial irregularities. Sources say information has been forwarded to the Justice Department.
And the colorful and controversial Cunningham, 59, has continued a high-pitched public feud with IA president Thomas Short. He calls Short “vindictive” and claims the IA chief instigated the current federal probe because he has a vendetta against him.
The U.S. Department of Labor, with jurisdiction over union management affairs, has allegedly been looking into Local 44’s finances and Cunningham’s own compensation for any irregularities that may have taken place during Cunningham’s first five terms as business agent—the top executive post at the Local—which spanned 12 years from 1989 to 2001. The period from 2001 to the present is also being reviewed.
In 2001 Cunningham lost another re-election bid, but ran again this year. He eliminated outgoing business agent Stew McGuire in the first round. And in a runoff garnered 53 percent of the votes cast to beat challenger J. Kevin Pike. About 46 percent of the membership voted. (With 5,600 members, Local 44 is one of the largest unions within the IA, and represents prop makers, prop masters, workers in special effects, set decorators, construction coordinators and workers dealing with greens and miniatures.)
In a recent interview with Below the Line at Local 44 headquarters in North Hollywood, Cunningham scoffed at charges of financial wrongdoing and predicted he would be cleared. He charged that Short was out to get him.
Cunningham says he had not been informed officially of any new probe. “But my understanding is that the Department of Labor has been investigating the situation and that subpoenas went out seven weeks ago,” he said.
“I can tell you right now it’s nothing but a vendetta coming from Tom Short and his cronies in New York,” he added. “Short has already had three audits of this Local and they’ve come to nothing. And this one won’t go anywhere either.” He predicted he would ultimately be exonerated of any charges of wrongdoing “unless Tom Short lies under oath.”
Short and IATSE declined to respond to Cunningham’s charges. A spokesperson for the Department Labor would not confirm or deny that there was an investigation into Local 44.
Cunningham was asked whether, if worse comes to worse, Local 44 might again be run by a trustee, as was the case in the 1980s. “The threat is worse than that,” he replied. “The threat is that I could go to jail—over something that never happened.”
The controversy, he said, “goes back to 1990 when they had an investigation on Ronnie Cunningham and it was total nonsense. Because I started the Retirees and Benevolent fund, there were charges I was muscling money from the producers to start this. It’s total bullshit.”
Cunningham has more than the IA and the Federal government to contend with. He’s also encountered some resistance already from his new executive board. At the board’s first meeting following the swearing in of new officers at the end of September, Cunningham submitted the names of two union members to serve as his assistants, Craig Raiche and Joe Recchia, but the board rejected both of them.
According to Cunningham, the board, consisting of mainly new members, was trying to prove it’s not a rubber stamp. “They’re trying to dictate my assistants but I won’t let them,” he said. He added he would keep resubmitting the same names until they got approved.
Despite such challenges to his authority, and the cloud over his own future, Cunningham was mainly upbeat as he laid out an ambitious and controversial agenda of what he hoped to accomplish in his new term as head of Local 44.
One of his top priorities is to cut back on the “concessionary contracts” the IA now provides to many producers, which he says have been “a killer.” The IA, to organize certain productions, has been willing to hand out wage concessions. “This is a big problem,” Cunningham says. “When that show is finished, the producer starts another show, which receives a new concession.” But, he says, some of these IA signatory companies have grown so large in terms of production hours that they “no longer warrant consideration for a concessionary agreement.” He singles out HBO as an example.
“Every time we make an agreement with one of these non-IA producers we have to give them concessions because they’re supposedly not a major studio. That permits lower wage scales. There’s such an overabundance of these concessionary agreements that the basic agreement has been destroyed. No one works under the basic anymore.”
Another priority is to change the voting system, which, he feels, short-changes large unions like Local 44 while giving small unions a disproportionate influence. He suggests the IA adopt a one-person, one-vote rule.
Under the present system a union gets one representative to the quadrennial IA convention where decisions get made for every 100 members plus a few extra votes for such considerations as having an IA charter. What that means, says Cunningham, is that Local 44, one of the largest in the IA, has 57 convention delegates. One of the many small IA unions that may have only 40 members can get up to four delegates. With about 200 unions of this size accounting for 400 delegates out of a total of around 900, and the three largest—including Local 600, the cinematographers, and the editors of Local 700 along with the Prop Masters—getting only around 200 votes, the smaller unions in numbers can easily outvote the larger ones, which is why Cunningham is pushing for one-person, one-vote.
Cunningham first became leader of Local 44 in 1989, after a two-year period in which the union was run by a trustee appointed by the IA following allegations of mob connections and mismanagement by the union’s leadership.
Still enshrined in union lore is the story of the armed standoff that took place in 1987 when the IA tried to take control of the Prop Masters local. Some of the union officers at the time barricaded themselves at headquarters and threatened a shootout before finally agreeing to peacefully turn over the keys. Cunningham, who was an assistant business agent at the time of the incident, was never accused of having anything to do with the previous regimes’ shenanigans.
In 1989 he was elected to the first of five consecutive terms (three for two years and two for three years) as business agent for Local 44 before losing a re-election bid in 2001 to Art Brewer by just 22 votes. During the campaign Brewer had charged that Cunningham and other leaders “had perhaps grown too comfortable and complacent in their positions” and promised to take a substantially smaller salary than Cunningham had been paid.
According to records filed with the Labor Department by the union, Cunningham’s salary in 2000, his last full year in office, came to $182,844. In 2001, Cunningham received $144,398 although his term covered only five months. Brewer was paid a gross salary of $112,276 for serving for seven months as business agent.
Brewer voluntarily resigned in 2002 after running Local 44 for only a year (he passed away a year later), and was succeeded by his assistant Stew McGuire. McGuire hauled down $167,900 in 2003, the last year for which public filings are available.
News that Local 44’s finances and compensation practices had come under IA scrutiny arrived in a November 2001 letter from IA president Short to McGuire and other Local 44 officers. The letter referred to an “examination of books and records for the Local” and came with an attached report from two top IA officials that criticized the way the union’s financial affairs had been carried out for over a decade, during which Cunningham was mainly in charge.
“After reviewing all documentation, it became clear that the Local has an obvious mismanagement of affairs which appears to go back to the early ’90s,” the report concluded. “No direction was given to any of the officers and they continued to act and make decisions which ultimately affected the financial condition of the Local such as increases in wages, overtime, severance pay, unused vacation pay, bonuses etc. with no substantiation or documentation authorizing such payments.”
The breach between Cunning-ham and Short continued during this year’s Local 44 election campaign. Cunningham criticized as “horrible” the contract the IA negotiated last year with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on behalf of many of the below-the-line unions, including the Prop Masters.
The IA accepted provisions from the producers that not only froze wage levels on first- and second-year episodic television shows, but reduced wage scales for work on low-budget television series by 23 percent. Though the contract was overwhelmingly approved by union members last year, and backed by officials at Local 44 and other below-the-line unions, the givebacks triggered a member backlash that Cunningham tapped into. Cunningham claimed the Local 44 members had been “duped.” (A subsequent agreement reached between the Teamsters Local 399 and AMPTP this summer caused the 23 percent reduction to be reversed for the IA unions.)
In one piece of literature during the campaign, Cunningham declared that “the interim business agent, Stew McGuire ganged up with International President Tom Short to deliver a management-friendly contract.”
In response, Short tried to make Cunningham persona non grata. In a signed letter Short sent out on Feb. 25, 2004 to “all members of the Official Family and IATSE West Coast Studio Locals” he cited such literature and declared: “This is just one of many reasons that Brother Cunningham will never be assigned to another General Executive Board Meeting as long as I am the International President.”
Interestingly, Cunningham is presently one of the IA’s three international trustees and in mid-October he traveled to IATSE headquarters in New York for a meeting of the board which is charged with overseeing the finances of the IA.
Cunningham told Below the Line he did not expect his differences with Short to impair relationships between Local 44 and the IA when it came to substantive issues. “It shouldn’t make a difference, not if everyone acts professionally. This problem is strictly between me and Tom Short and has nothing to do with this great Local. Hopefully somewhere along the line someone will say let’s put this behind us, because from here there’s nowhere to go but up.”