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Teamsters’ Seniority System May Not Work Well for Other Crafts, Guilds

Teamsters Local 399 was founded in 1928 and has held onto a seniority system designed to ensure that its most experienced members are hired first. It’s a plan that other unions might like to adopt, but not all can.

At the Teamsters, drivers transition through three groups as they accrue union longevity, spending two years at the first level and eight at the second before graduating to the top tier. Drivers are hired for jobs based on these groupings, with 98% of each more senior-level group required to be working before members of the next group are considered for placement.

This time-based system ensures that more experienced drivers have the first crack at jobs. Transportation coordinator Malcolm Mazer (“Modern Family”) supports the structure, saying it would be fundamentally unfair “if you’re starting new and bump someone out of a job for no apparent reason except for nepotism or you’re somebody’s friend.”

The Teamsters system also protects those who are the most at risk for discrimination, says Local 399 secretary-treasurer Steve Dayan. “If you look around a movie set, how many people have gray hair? How many people are older? The seniority system protects older people. The same thing applies to women or people of color. You can’t discriminate. It’s a fair system that protects people who have the most amount of time in our industry.”

Depending on how busy the studios are, members of the least senior group may find themselves supplementing their income in other ways if there aren’t enough union jobs available. Eventually, however, they move up to the next tier.

There are some exceptions to the system, depending on circumstances. For instance, if a production needs someone to operate equipment that requires a unique skill set, such as driving a tractor-trailer, the task can be done by hiring from within any group. Generally, though, seniority must be served. Dayan believes the union’s members feel so passionately about their system that losing it would become a strike issue.

Could other unions benefit from a similar structure to protect their most senior members?

Prop master Angela O’Neill (“American Crime”) doesn’t think so. She points out that prop masters, unlike drivers, interact with nearly every department. “When I get hired,” O’Neill says, “there are a lot of elements that go into the approval. I meet 10 people on average, including the line producer, production coordinator, production designer and set decorator.” And in props work, the skills required for a character-driven drama are different from those required for a sitcom, she explains.

Additionally, more established prop masters typically own extensive kits and large trailers (O’Neill owns a 48-footer). This leads them to seek work with higher-budgeted productions, and the jobs tend to be complex, sometime requiring the ability to pack up a trailer and move it multiple times a day. “A smaller production won’t have a budget for a tractor to pull my trailer, or won’t rent enough space to park it,” O’Neill says.

In checking with multiple locals, just two others seem to have a seniority system similar to that of the Teamsters, and their rules are based on days or hours worked, not on years of service.

Dayan, whose background is in location work, says new members begin as assistant location managers and must remain assistants for the first 150 days of work. After that, they can move up to key assistant location manager and then, after 300 more days, up to location manager. There’s no requirement for the number of hours needed to constitute a day of work.

Set designers seem to be the only other union with a codified seniority system, and theirs is based on project hours. Per their contract, junior set designers must work 3,000 hours and attend 24 hours of instruction in set design-related topics to attain the senior designation. After that designation is achieved, however, a set designer’s years of experience don’t guarantee work. Instead, newer members can be judged to be more talented and get the chance to advance more quickly through the tiered pay structure: The faster they accrue senior hours, the sooner they may begin negotiating the higher-paying standard rates.

Clearly, there’s no “one size fits all” approach to valuing seniority at the various unions. The intricacies inherent in each discipline present their own challenges — and benefits — in ensuring members are served at all stages of their careers.

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