By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
While none of the writers interviewed for this article spoke a word against the successes, or the management pasts, of their negotiators, potshots are already coming from the very people the WGA and SAG will need to stand by them in solidarity during a strike -- other unions.
III. HOLLYWOOD LABOR:
"A CORRUPT, SICK SETUP."
Everybody kidded about the Guild back and forth, but I felt that gagging was really the official court language and that underneath it all you could feel the friction growing.
What Makes Sammy Run?
They say there are no more original stories to tell, but there is one overlooked drama that has all the narrative ingredients Hollywood so prizes. It is a period piece involving irresistible forces and immovable antagonists, a true story stained with violence, corruption and betrayal. To be sure, it is also a fable tinged with politics, but not so much as to scare away multiplex audiences; and besides the political stuff, this story would offer lots of gangsters, great vintage costuming and antique automobiles -- some of them set afire.
But this is also a story, it is safe to assume, that will never be filmed because it is about Hollywood itself and the power relations that govern it. It is the story of Tinseltown's labor wars, which reached a crescendo during the tumultuous 1945 strike instigated by the scenic painters of the Conference of Studio Unions. That strike resulted in a studio lockout, and its bitter legacy can be found in the way the industry does business to this day.
The CSU strike pitted labor not only against the studio moguls, but also against itself on a surreally Balkanized landscape of competing craft unions. In the end, the producers smashed the CSU, but only with the tacit acquiescence of the Teamsters and, more critically, with the fists and tire irons of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
IATSE's members are the Hollywood tool belts who perform all the "below the line" film work not done by Teamsters -- everything from building and painting sets, to rigging lighting, to operating cameras and projectors. The alliance has traditionally been the most politically conservative of Hollywood's craft unions, the heritage of having once been run by the Chicago mob and, later, by right-wing unionists who collaborated with the studios to break the leftist CSU. Not until the early 1960s did IATSE even open its ranks to people who weren't blood relatives of its members, let alone to minorities and women.
If SAG and the WGA do hit the bricks together, they will do so with the 100,000-strong IATSE already sniping at their backs. Its president, Tom Short, stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest when, in a February Daily Variety interview, he denounced the WGA's leaders as unrealistic and wrong-headed.
"If anybody thinks I'm going to support an institution that is trying to obtain unobtainable proposals in a collective-bargaining process . . ." Short left the rest of this thought to his interviewer's imagination. "I don't mind getting on a bus, but not on a bus without a driver that's going over a cliff."
Short dismissed the WGA's call to end possessory credits as utopian and unworkable, and flatly predicted that striking writers would scab.
Last year's SAG strike, according to an IATSE audit, cost West Coast members nearly 1 million hours of work, which may explain much of the IATSE leader's ire. Still, not all IATSE members follow their president. Short's interview, for example, was publicly denounced by Michael Everett, a lighting technician from IATSE Local 728 who heads an informal group called I.A. Progressives. Veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler has also challenged Short and his union's bureaucracy over safety and solidarity issues.
"I'm a board member of I.A. Local 600," the two-time Oscar-winning Wexler says. "During the commercial strike I proposed that we send a letter of solidarity to SAG. But our business agent said we weren't going to do that because screen actors didn't honor a picket line that we had in New York on a picture called Perfume." Indeed, SAG did not receive a syllable of support from Short until its strike was four months old, and then only after Bill Daniels appealed to him for help.
If the WGA and SAG hope to weather a prolonged strike, they will need to use all their communications skills to explain to both the public and their nonstriking Hollywood co-unions exactly why they are shutting down the industry. Robert Eisele remembers getting a profanity-filled phone call from an angry IATSE member during the 1988 WGA strike after Eisele had been featured in a TV news segment on the walkout.
"Instead of hanging up on the guy, I talked to him and said, 'Wait a minute, is it you against me or us against them?' That turned him around, and when we finished talking he realized we shouldn't be fighting each other."
IATSE has its own headaches with the studios, which have to do with corporate verticalization and the simultaneous de-Hollywoodizing of the industry, particularly the trend to shoot and do post-production work elsewhere. "One of the ways the producers are going about it," Wexler says, "is they are creating film schools all over the world and bringing in foreign workers as cheap labor. The way the unions are coping is by trying to work with Mexican unions. In Canada the I.A. has been spending money raiding NABET, the Canadian union, making enemies. It's a corrupt, sick setup and will not change as long as working people are in fear."
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