Strike clout in doubt

If a union goes on strike and nobody in town pays attention, does it really go on strike?

Al DiTolla, president of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, has to be pondering that question while he waits to see if the 24,000-plus Hollywood members of the craft union will ratify the strike-authorization vote he called for Dec. 4, after breaking off contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers. The strike ballots went out last Thursday , and IATSE will resume negotiations with AMPTP on Thursday.

With union workers in a frenzy over the cutbacks demanded by the AMPTP, the consent vote is almost a sure thing. DiTolla clearly intends to strut back to the bargaining table with new-found strike power.

But that may not be enough to get him the contract concessions he wants, which include more significant wage increases and a better plan for financing the fiscally comatose health and benefits package.

The producers claim the threat of a strike doesn’t frighten them.

“Why would we run scared?” asked one management source. “We have contingency plans up the wazoo. We can handle this type of disruption. It might cost a little more in rescheduling, but in the end it won’t be a major problem.”

What is potentially more problematic for DiTolla is convincing the AMPTP and all of Hollywood that the IA has enough clout to close the town down. The once-powerful union has fallen on hard times and more than a few of its leaders fretted over its lack of leverage going into these talks.

No staying power

A strike could have a short-term effect but would likely lose its bite after a few months. As TV and film productions have left Hollywood, the supply of non-union workers capable of handling on-the-set rigors has grown; more IA members are willing to work non-union jobs, if the pay isn’t too insulting.

Producers are convinced that IA workers will need to work to survive, even if it means non-union labor.

“They need those jobs to make ends meet,” said an AMPTP source. “These are people who are living hand-to-mouth. They’re not people who have a lot of savings.”

Labor officials counter weakly with claims of unity, pointing toevents such as the Nov. 20 Burbank labor rally that drew more than 3,000 IA members.

Hollywood has long been subject to IA whims. The union that never goes on strike never needed to. As contracts came and went, IA workers drew wages commensurate with top-line laborers in other industries. Their health and benefits program was a model for the nation. It’s no wonder the union hasn’t thrown an industrywide strike since 1939.

“We’ve done well in the past,” said a union source. “But not in the last few contracts. Lately, (the AMPTP has) been pushing for cutbacks in everything.”

Bottom line for producers: Leaving town and going non-union is the best remedy.

Features are easily relocated, but producers would have to spend extra cash to reshape shooting skeds.

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