Mo’ Union Blues

Spike Lee’s busy getting “Jungle Fever” done for Cannes and doing preproduction on his Malcolm X biopic. He’s also been busy clashing with Teamsters Local 817, which provides union drivers for all film, tv and theater projects in New York. Local 817 prexy Thomas O’Donnell, who says Spike called him “the biggest racist in the world” on a recent segment of “Donahue,” is hopping mad. “I’m not a racist,” said O’Donnell. “He’s the racist.” Lee said his tv comment was that 817 used “racist hiring practices. Two black people have gotten their book since 1960. I refuse to work with a union that has those kind of racist hiring policies. I should be shot if I shoot ‘Malcolm X’ with a lily-white crew.”

“Spike Lee doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” O’Donnell replied. “We have about 8% active black members. Maybe 25 or 26 with books. If you count Hispanics, we have more than the national union average for minorities.” O’Donnell said more than two black members of 817 sent letters to Lee supporting the union. “It’s true I don’t recruit black members, but I don’t recruit white members either,” he said. “I could open the books and we’d have 3,000 applicants immediately, but nobody’d work. Unlike some of the IA locals which have a lot of members, all of my members work all the time.”

O’Donnell and Lee had a date to meet to discuss their differences last week. O’Donnell waited. Lee didn’t show. Spike cited a Cannes deadline, and said they’d meet this week.

“What it comes down to is the Teamsters do not hire any black people,” said Lee. “We want a number of black people to be given cards. If they refuse, we will not make any films with the Teamsters. If they think they can come bogarting into my films with lily-white crews, they’re mistaken. I’ve given them $2.5 million over three films. There’s never been a black captain. People are just scared to take on the Teamsters. I defy them to come up to Harlem if we don’t use them. I defy him.”

Said O’Donnell: “He first wrote a letter demanding I hire six blacks immediately, and I could have just sent six existing members and been done with it. But I’m not going to do something just to appease him. He’s not dictating our policy.”

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