Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Not Again...

Is Hollywood on the verge of another shut-down?

(I had a very different post in the works for today, but events overtook the process. Barring any further drama, I'll post it next week.)

Returning from our first one week hiatus -- during which I picked up four days of work on the studio gang -- we shot episode four on Friday night, putting me in line for my sixth straight weekly paycheck. None were (or will be) the fat checks that come from working a feature film or long-hours episodic show, or anywhere near the kind of money I used to make doing television commercials, but it's enough to stem the endless outgoing tide that made 2010 such a dismal year up ‘til now. I can’t imagine any remotely realistic scenario that could turn this year sunny-side up, but considering how bad things have been, I'll be happy just to break even by the time Christmas rolls around.

As the audience loaded in for Friday night’s show, I was wrapping some stingers when our laborer (a guy who cleans up the stage as fast as the crew trashes it) put down his broom and leaned in.

“Sure hope the teamsters don’t go on strike,” he said.

That caught me by surprise. Now that the DGA, WGA, SAG, AFTRA, and the IATSE have more-or-less synchronized contract schedules, I assumed all would remain quiet on the labor front until 2011, when the grim promise of Armageddon –- a knock-down, drag-out confrontation between the Producers and Everyone Else that could shut the Industry down cold -- will loom as all our contracts run out at the same time. With the business finally picking up, I figured we were safe until then, at least.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“They vote on Sunday,” he replied. “The teamsters want a three percent raise, but the Producers are only offering two. If they go on strike, we could all get shut down.”

This being the first I'd heard about a teamster's contract in the works, I paused to consider the source. As it happens, this particular laborer is a real talker, always jawing at somebody -- anybody within earshot, actually. He'd trapped me into a five minute conversation about nothing at all the week before, and I figured he was just stirring the pot to generate more meaningless talk.

"Let's hope not," I nodded, then rapidly moved out of range.

The next morning's newspaper delivered a rude awakening. It turns out that laborer was right after all – Teamsters Local 399 will indeed hold a strike authorization vote today, July 25. If the membership gives the thumbs up, they could strike as early as August 1.

Exactly what this means remains muddled. The article states that a strike would affect location filming first, and that "Studios have drawn up contingency plans to film more on their lots, shift production to Canada and hire replacement drivers."

Retreating onto studio lots wouldn't work for long -- one way or another, all studio productions are supplied with the help of teamster drivers. Hiring replacement (non-teamster) drivers would be a very iffy tactic that could turn ugly. Teamsters take strikes -- and potential strike breakers -- very seriously. In some ways, they’re a bit like the Hell’s Angels: fuck with one local and you risk fucking with them all. When push comes to shove, teamsters aren't afraid to play rough.

As for "shift(ing) production to Canada" -- no offense to any Canadian readers, but I'd really hate to see yet more US productions head north of the border. Enough is enough, and as far as I'm concerned, we blew right past "enough" a long time ago.

What might begin as a relatively limited labor action could easily mushroom into a worst-case scenario with the potential to shut us all down just as the television season is kicking into high gear.

I’ve worked with countless teamsters over the years, most of whom were (and are) solid people. As in all the crafts, a few bad apples in the ranks can stink things up for the rest, but by and large they’re a hard-working group. They arise before dawn to get the equipment trucks on location before the rest of the crew arrives, and are among the last to leave at the end of a very long day. The nature of their work -- lots of waiting all day long -- makes them ripe targets for a cottage industry of teamster jokes*, but a good teamster crew can be an enormous help to any production. I didn't realize just how good those guys (and women) were until I saw a teamster hop in the cab of a five ton truck towing a genny, then back the rig a quarter mile down a narrow country road at 15 mph as if the truck and genny were on rails. The driver made it look easy, but believe me, it’s not. Next time you have occasion to rent a U-Haul trailer, hook that baby up behind the family SUV and try backing down the block at even 5 mph.

On second thought, don't -- if you're not a professional driver, you'll likely end up with a jackknifed trailer and God knows how much damage to it and your car. The point is, driving big, heavily loaded equipment trucks around LA and beyond is not a trivial task. It takes skill, experience, and a bleary-eyed stamina to do the job day after 16 hour day on set. And although many teamsters have taken full advantage of their position to milk productions down through the years, so has everyone else above and below the line.

If you think producers and studio execs don't feather their nests at the expense of every type of production, you're living in the deepest wells of denial. One way or another, this goes on at every level of the biz -- it's just the way things are -- so I'll be pulling for the Teamsters to extract their additional one percent raise (just like the three percent the rest of us got last time around) over the terminally greedy, cheap-ass, penny-pinching, motherf***ing Producers Association, a group that tries to grind us all further into the dirt with every new contract.

But the bottom line is stark -- none of us who work in Hollywood can afford another strike right now. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that push doesn't come to shove as this next week unfolds.

* How can you spot a teamster’s kids at school? They’re the ones watching the other kids play. Why does the teamster logo feature the image of horses? Because teamsters and horses are the only animals that can sleep standing up. Ba-da-bump...


A.J. said...

Today, Nikki Finke posted this headline on her blog: "Teamsters Local 399 Ratify Contract Today; Moguls Were Never Worried About Strike."


*What was the last thing Jesus said to the Teamsters?
"Don't do anything until I come back."

Anonymous said...

I have worked in transpo and it bothers me the rep they have. Granted some of it may be warranted, but I've seen first-hand what a good transpo coordinator will do for the production, which is everything and anything. I find it comical that they are the first union ostracized when things go sour, but when any of the departments need anything, Transpo is the first department they call.

Michael Taylor said...

AJ --

I grabbed the first teamster I saw this morning at 6:05 a.m. to ask how the vote went. Good news for all of us. Now we can hunker down to await the shit-rain of 2011...

Anonymous --

There's a grain of truth in every cliche, but I hope you didn't read this post as a criticism of the teamsters. Like I said, I've seen what a difference a good transpo department can make when it comes to helping a show run smoothly -- and it's huge. On the flip side of that the coin, a bad transpo department can hobble a show. I've seen that happen too, but very rarely.

I think the producers should have offered the same 3% raise to the teamsters as they did to the rest of us, and I'm not happy the drivers had to settle for 2%. It appears the producers strategy is to grind us all down one at a time, and keep lowering the bar with each successive contract. Raises have been 3%/yearly as long as I can remember -- essentially, a cost-of-living adjustment -- but now those bastards want to set 2% as the new standard?

That stinks.

Still, I'm really happy they didn't vote to strike. Like so many others, I'm still trying to catch up from the WGA strike in 2008.