A certain bull-in-china-shop image was apparent watching the 62nd biennial IATSE convention unfold at the Art Deco Fontainebleau Hilton.
In a banquet hall that reeked of throwbacks to another era, more than 1,000 stagehands, gaffers, key grips, cameramen, costumers, prop masters, publicists, studio mechanics, projectionists, script supervisors, ticket sellers, editors, film lab technicians and set designers hunkered down and carved out an aggressive future for the union in their finest Roberts Rules of Order fashion.
Newly elected president Thomas C. Short, a beefy union man who hails from Cleveland, led the charge with his caveat to the entertainment industry: “It is time for us to hold the line. The era of givebacks is history.”
And from the youngest fresh-scrubbed delegates to 98-year-old Rocco “Rocky” Dilione, a projectionist since 1917 who is credited with inventing the first dimmer switch for Model T Fords, they stood as a solid, unified labor front behind their new president. Their motto: “A New Era.”
“You’re watching history being made,” said one Hollywood business agent. “The union has never backed a president the way they’re backing Tom.”
Short, 46, inherited the job from late president Al DiTolla, who died in December. His first election to the post was not in doubt, especially since he ran unopposed, but he nonetheless had to run. The union’s unanimous positive vote July 21 confirmed its support for the IA’s youngest international president ever.
Union old-timers admit that for years the IATSE has suffered from backbiting locals that squabbled over even the tiniest jurisdictional dispute at the conventions. “I’ve been coming to conventions for more than 30 years, and this is the best one so far,” said a delegate. “Short has unified the country. He’s brought these people together and they were never like that before.”
Union leaders and delegates alike claim that Short’s magic is in his keen understanding of the problems that face the IATSE. “He’s very well-versed in the issues,” says a business agent.
But more evident to the industry will likely be his organizing drive, which picked up major steam at the convention. Already in his six months in office, his staff has organized more than 65 features, telepics, TV series and other projects.
From the podium, Short issued his usual “organize, organize and organize” dictum. But the IA also unveiled a sly new approach to bringing non-union projects into the fold. Termed “salting,” the strategy calls for members to seek work on nonunion shows, infiltrate and gather information that can be used to take job actions against those employers.
“The next step is to begin to target employers who are not operating on a national basis and aggressively organize their productions,” said the report put together by Pacific Northwest-based IA rep Sandy England and former staffer Bryan Unger, who now works for the Directors Guild of America. “But the members must be willing to commit their time and perhaps sacrifice their present job.”
The union also passed an amendment that allows the international office to partake in all local negotiations at the president’s discretion. While some local chiefs complained that the amendment hampered local autonomy, Short supporters maintained that it’s a necessary tool to stop producers from “shopping” projects around and pitting one local against another in bidding for work.
Another change voted in will be the movement of the convention from biennial to every three years. The switch saves the union some $1.7 million every other year, which sources said will go toward its Defense Fund (for education and organizing) and a new Building Fund (to find a new structure for the I A’s central office).
The only true controversy to surface involved Elizabeth Alvarez, a former business agent for Sound Local 695. Alvarez was terminated from her post by a vote of the local’s membership last year for “misuse of funds,” though the actual misuse was never explained. She appealed to DiTolla, who upheld the local’s decision. On a second appeal to the Grievance Committee at the convention, the original decision was overturned in an emotionally charged four-hour meeting last week.
A day later, however, the full delegation voted to disregard the committee’s finding and uphold the termination of Alvarez. Says one IA source, “You rarely see the delegation vote against the presidential decisions.”
IA insiders said Short’s first post-convention hurdle will be the Broadway contract talks with the League of American Theatres and Producers. The negotiations broke off at the end of June so that IA officials could attend the confab. They are slated to resume Aug. 1, but already the saber-rattling has begun.
In his presidential address, Short said the producers have been very public about ridding the contract of all provisions that they deem “undesirable.”
“They have gone so far as to proclaim the likelihood of a strike in the industry. I am proud to say that the local union involved (Local 1) has a history of not having engaged in a strike in this segment of their jurisdiction for over 100 years,” he said. “Regrettably, the local may be forced to break that record if the employers think they can emasculate the contract that took the local over 100 years to negotiate.”
Tough words from the new labor boss of 78,000 workers. But the true test will be whether he’s able to hammer out a contract. IA supporters say the outcome on the Great White Way will have a strong impact on how the film industry views Short and his negotiation prowess.
Short’s new era is most assuredly under way.