Hollywood’s labor battles, currently centered on WGA negotiations, are likely to intensify in coming months.
The Intl. Brotherhood of Teamsters — which reps studio drivers, location scouts and location managers — is already taking a tough tack, promising a rockier-than-usual fight at the bargaining table with studios next month. And in what could be a “perfect storm” scenario of contract negotiations, SAG, AFTRA and the DGA are expected to start bargaining three different contracts simultaneously, with SAG already promising it will take on the contentious issue of improved residuals.
The WGA’s current three-year contract expires May 2 while the Teamsters pact is up July 31. AFTRA’s network code contract expires Nov. 15; the DGA’s three-year pact is up June 30, 2005 — the same expiration date as the one-year extension of the SAG-AFTRA film-TV contract.
The WGA has not commented on negotiations since they launched April 5. But sources close to the talks indicated Thursday that the two sides are nowhere near a deal and added it would not be a surprise if talks go past the expiration date — a development certain to rattle Hollywood’s nerves.
And in an early sign of possible rancor, Teamsters Local 399 has warned it’s prepared to strike if negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers don’t lead to a settlement by the July 31 expiration.
“I’m prepared to use the resources of the local to test the producers’ resolve,” said Leo T. Reed, Local 399 secretary-treasurer, in a recent message to the local’s 4,000 members. “Nobody wants a strike because both sides lose. But I will not stand by while actors and producers reap big profits with part of it coming from our members’ pockets.”
Reed also warned that if there’s a strike, the Teamsters will picket every production nationwide. Local 399’s stance has already received unanimous backing from Teamsters Joint Council 42 of Southern California, which represents 160,000 members.
No date has been set for the upcoming bargaining between the AMPTP and the Teamsters, who negotiate jointly with four other Basic Crafts unions, which represent studio plumbers, pipe fitters, plasterers, cement masons and electrical workers. Reed believes negotiations will likely launch in late May; AMPTP president Nick Counter said he’s ready to start any time.
The negotiations look to be complex because of an already bitter fight between the Teamsters and the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which covers the vast majority of below-the-line showbiz work. Dispute stems from an unusual tactic used by IATSE in its agreement last year to a new three-year deal with the AMPTP, which included wage freezes and concessions on low-budget TV series production — on the condition that the Teamsters would agree to the same terms.
Dispute over tactics
IATSE leaders have contended that the move reflects its decade-old strategy to organize low-budget projects in response to producers taking the work to less-expensive overseas locations or shooting non-union. They cite IATSE’s expansion of coverage into areas outside of traditional production centers in Los Angeles and New York.
“We are trying to capture as much of the work as possible,” said IATSE West Coast rep Joe Aredas.
Upset that the IATSE move amounts to another union endorsing a concession in Teamster negotiations, Reed has told members IATSE’s move to tie the concessions to the Teamsters’ deal was “spiteful and destructive.” He’s also contended below-the-line wages aren’t a key factor in runaway production; rather, it’s the combo of government incentives and weak foreign currencies that lure productions away from Hollywood.
Counter said the concessions would affect six to 10 TV series that otherwise would shoot outside Southern California. And he noted the removal of the lower rates would serve as an incentive for producers to shoot more reality shows in lieu of scripted programs.
Dramatic programming “employs a lot more below-the-line people than a reality show,” Counter added.
Thesps inspire Teamsters
The IATSE basic agreement was ratified by a 4-to-1 margin in February 2003 by members of 19 West Coast locals and went into effect Aug. 1, with leaders pointing to gains in the pension plan and maintained health plan benefits. Pact also included wage freezes on first- and second-year episodic TV and a 23% reduction in wages for single-camera half-hour episodics with budgets under $1.25 million and one-hour episodics under $1.85 million.
Reed noted in his letter to members that SAG and AFTRA were able to achieve an increase in TV rates rather than agreeing to the same IATSE concessions when the performers’ unions recently negotiated a one-year extension of their film-TV contract.
“We don’t intend on accommodating those greedy producers, and we expect a battle,” Reed said in a recent letter to all Teamster motion picture locals. Reed has asked those locals to attend a “unity conference” in Las Vegas on May 17.
Reed said other key negotiation issues would include seniority, medical and pension benefits, pay increases and job-protection language.
Details about the Teamsters-IATSE dispute emerged in a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year. Reed and four other trustees of the Motion Picture Industry Pension sued the plan and the other 31 trustees, alleging that the plan had illegally penalized Basic Crafts retirees through exclusion from a traditional pension payout.
The retirees alleged they were excluded from the payout by the pension fund last year because their unions had not agreed to early negotiations and the same concessions made by IATSE; the IATSE retirees, who are covered by the same pension plan, received the payout, which comes from excess funds collected for residuals and usually is mailed out at the end of the year.
U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real dismissed the case on April 5. The defendants had contended that trustees’ amendments to the pension plan under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act were not subject to court review.
The Hollywood Teamsters last struck in 1988 for three weeks, following a five-month strike by the WGA that delayed the fall TV season. SAG and AFTRA struck for six months against commercial producers in 2000.