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Union Roundup: New ICG President Baird Steptoe Sr. Will Have to Fight for Working Families Amid Larger Cultural Battles


Baird Steptoe
Image via ICG

IA Local 600 — the International Cinematographers Guild — just had an election for new officers, as many readers here know. Camera assistant Baird B. Steptoe Sr. was elected to a three-year term to replace outgoing President John Lindley, ASC, with results expected to be certified at the local’s next board meeting in June.

The certification is not expected to be met with a slew of rioters seeking to overturn the results.

But democracy-on-the-gallows humor aside, there are aspects to consider. First was the relatively low turnout — about a third of eligible members cast ballots — for both the President and a slew of executive officers. By way of comparison, America’s shaky election turnouts are generally (only?) twice that, on average, hovering around 60 percent in presidential elections, and maybe 40 percent in midterms.

As noted earlier at BTL, Steptoe, a long-standing member of the guild’s executive board, becomes the first African-American President in ICG’s history. And while his election is for a three-year term, it also comes on the heels of the announced resignation of Rebecca Rhine, the local’s executive director, who’ll be stepping down when her contract expires in September.

From the letter she sent to members, she appears to be leaving with a few admonitions: “This Local has so much heart and so much potential, but it can be undermined by mistrust and our tendency to turn on each other… Building a stronger union requires patience, collaboration, and hard work. That means instead of posting about how it should be done, do something. That means if you are going to talk about what is wrong, offer some ideas for how you think it could be done right. That means bringing members together to educate and empower them by telling them the truth, even when it isn’t what they want to hear.”

This may refer, in part, to the split within the local — and vis a vis other locals — when 600 (after a unanimous vote to authorize a strike, in contrast to more recent turnout), rejected IATSE’s proposed settlement with producers.

Rebecca Rhine
Image via ICG

Indeed, Rhine co-signed, along with her colleagues from other locals, an earlier letter, in the wake of last fall’s settlement and ratification, that said in part “to those of you opposed — we hear you, we see you, and we recognize we collectively still have work to do to change the culture of our industry.”

“We ask you to stand with us as we move forward. Our future success will depend on our ability to stay united rather than being divided. That only serves our employers… Let’s move forward together and take ownership in advocating for the long-overdue cultural change needed in this industry. It doesn’t stop here, and in fact, it has just begun.”

This somewhat parallels what Rhine said in her more recent letter, in which she asked Local 600 members to “turn your attention outward to the fight that matters to working members, the one with our employers for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”

That will be part of the fight that Steptoe will be overseeing during his initial three-year tenure as President; there’ll be another contract expiration during that time, and, in addition to the coming midterms, another U.S. Presidential election, right before his own term expires.

Depending on how that goes — and who is even allowed to vote — unvarnished hostility to the very idea of unions could be on the table then.

As mainstream DC political news source The Hill reported about President Biden’s recent meeting with union organizers at the White House, Biden pledged to be the most “pro-union” President in American history, though the article observes that traditional union support for Democrats remains tentative in places like Ohio.

The Hill ascribes this to pocketbook issues like inflation, and trade agreements (without actually analyzing what’s causing the inflation, or whether GOP rhetoric about trade ever led to tangible benefits for those workers). And pocketbook issues are indeed tangible, immediate, and often frightening, particularly when rent and groceries seem more aspirational than obtainable.

Joe Biden
Image via IATSE

The article quotes AFSCME president Lee Saunders saying that Biden is “using the power of the presidency to have workers’ backs,” And to the degree that he can, without a reliable voting bloc in the Senate, he mostly has. Even when the support is more optical than brass tack-like.

The article continues, saying that “following the meeting, Starbucks officials wrote to Biden and asked for their own meeting, expressing their concern that workers were invited while no official Starbucks representative was invited.”

If you are hard-pressed to recall a time when these same corporate representatives wrote in to say that having CEOs to the White House without workers was just too darned one-sided, well, you’ll be pressing for a while.

As The Hill concludes though, “the bigger question is whether (union) rank-and-file members will be solidly in line with Biden and his political party this fall.”

That will be just the first of many challenges, which will soon include the health rights of women in worker benefit packages, availability of birth control, fear of “wokeness” in employee training (or even in hiring practices), and many other issues once thought settled.

Rhine ended her letter by mentioning that she’ll be working with her successor to ensure a smooth transition, adding that she believes “the fight for working families is the most righteous fight there is.”

As members of 600 — and members of every local, everywhere — will find in the coming years, that fight will increasingly be tied into all the other fights, too.

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 Williams’ 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.

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