Drivers agree to deal a week before end of contract

Hollywood Teamster drivers have overwhelmingly ratified a new two-year deal with studios, a week before their contract was to expire — leaving showbiz relieved that a possible strike threat has vanished.

The work stoppage could have started next Sunday and hit productions in 13 Western states. Instead, the Teamsters agreed to the deal, which covers about 3,200 drivers, with support from 97% of those voting at a Sunday meeting of Local 399 of the Intl. Brotherhood of Teamsters at the Pickwick Gardens in Burbank.

Negotiations had broken off Friday night on the issue of annual wage increases, stoking expectations that Teamster negotiators would ask members to vote down the deal and grant them a strike authorization at the Sunday meeting. Instead, negotiators for the Teamsters and four other Basic Craft unions announced that the companies had sweetened their offer Saturday — and recommended that the 1,000 members present vote to approve the deal.

Negotiations had hung up over the issue of the Teamsters seeking 3% in annual wage hikes while the companies insisted on a 2% wage gain, which the Teamsters have now accepted. Teamster negotiator Joseph J. Kaplon said the final gains in the deal — including meal pay for off-production drivers related to a production and payment for drivers license and medical card renewals — were enough to make the pact worth supporting amid the current economic climate.

“We were absolutely convinced that the companies were willing to take a strike from us,” said Kaplon, a partner at Wohlner Kaplon Philips Young & Cutler. “We achieved small but significant enhancements and not as much as we wanted in wages. It was better to accept that deal than go out on strike.”

Members leaving the meeting echoed that assessment. “Nobody wants to go on strike in this economy,” one said.

A strike would have probably seen studios bringing production onto lots, taking production outside the country or pulling the plug until a work stoppage had ended. It would have been the first showbiz strike since the bitter 100-day writers strike ended in February 2008.

“We wish to thank Secretary-Treasurer Leo T. Reed and the rest of the leadership at Teamsters Local 399 for working with us to resolve some difficult issues so we could reach an agreement that keeps everyone working,” the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a statement Sunday. “The newly ratified agreement provides solid increases in wages, benefits and work opportunities for members of the Hollywood Teamsters while recognizing the economic realities that continue to challenge the industry.”

The negotiation with the Teamsters was the highest profile so far under the AMPTP presidency of Carol Lombardini, the org’s longtime VP who was promoted to the slot last fall after Nick Counter retired. She and the companies have started prepping for the Sept. 27 start of negotiations with the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists over the feature-primetime master contract, which expires June 30.

The Teamster’s two-year contract expires on July 31, 2012 — matching the termination date of the Local 399 deal with that of the West Coast deal for 15 locals of the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which reps most below-the-line crew members on studio productions. Kaplon said the alignment of termination dates represents a key gain for the Teamsters and comes amid improved relations between IATSE and the Teamsters, which could lead to the unions jointly negotiating in the next round.

Kaplon credited IATSE national president Matthew Loeb, who replaced the retiring Thomas Short in 2008, with fostering closer ties between the two unions. The Teamsters’ contract went out of synch with the IATSE deal in 1988, when the drivers staged their last strike and stayed out for 24 days.

The dispute on wages stemmed from Teamster negotiators contending that their members were entitled to the same 3% wage hike achieved early last year by the 15 Hollywood-based IATSE locals in a three-year deal.

The congloms contend that the IATSE wage gain was negotiated in April 2008 — long before the market meltdown in the fall of 2008 — and that subsequent AMPTP deals with other unions had been for a 2% increase in minimum salary rates.

The new Teamster deal includes the same 1.66% hike in benefits that’s contained in the IATSE deal. But there are several key differences such as the Teamster deal maintaining an $8 million cap on low-budget productions, as opposed to the $12 million cap in the IATSE pact — meaning that Teamsters receive their standard rates when the budget for a feature or TV production hits $8 million.

Additionally, the Teamster deal contains language providing that a Teamster captain be present on all TV show productions. The pact doesn’t cover new media productions — unlike the guild and IATSE deals — because the Teamsters prefer to organize and expand their jurisdiction into that area, according to Kaplon.

Three years ago, the Teamster talks went down to the wire with negotiations going several hours past the expiration — nine days after the employees gave negotiators a unanimous strike authorization.

The new Teamster deal also covers four other Basic Crafts unions with about 1,000 members — Local 40 of the Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Local 724 of the Studio Utility Employees; Local 755 of Plasterers and Cement Masons, and Local 78 of Journeymen & Apprentices of the Plumbing & Pipe Fitting Industry. Ratification meetings from those four unions are expected to take place this week.

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