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, August 29, 2010

Contract Services

Once again, down the rabbit hole...

“I yam what’s I yam and that’s all what’s I yam, I’m Popeye the Sailor man.”

Popeye the Sailor Man

I finally stopped trying to postpone the inevitable and called Contract Services to sign up for their latest in an apparently endless series of mandatory classes for the “Safety Passport Program.” As expected, "A-2 Environmental Safety" was a three hour time-suck offering a similar wheat-to-chaff ratio as most of the others we’ve had to endure over the past few years -- meaning that 45 of those 180 precious, never-to-return minutes actually contained some useful information. The other two-plus hours consisted mostly of advice on how not get run over by paparazzi on location (look both ways before crossing), what to do during an earthquake (duck and cover 'til the shaking stops), and how to avoid colds and flu on the job.

I’m not sure why Contract Services felt it necessary to remind me to cover my mouth when I cough or sneeze, and that frequent hand-washing is a good idea during cold/flu season, but the A-2 class seems to be a stew pot of leftovers thrown together and brought to a quick boil before being ladled into the open mouths of Industry workers at the point of a bureaucratic gun.

It wasn’t a complete waste of time – the information on working in bad weather (lightning, in particular) and how to survive extremely hot or cold conditions was valuable, and I was glad to hear our instructor warn everybody else to ask before plugging their Iphone and laptop chargers into set lighting's Edison lunch-boxes. The instructor droned on, the minutes passed like hours, and by late afternoon I was finally released to stagger home through the 103 degree valley heat for a badly needed vodka-tonic.

A double, actually.

But it wasn’t the class that raised my hackles. Although the Safety Passport program has less to do with worker safety than providing a legal mechanism to shield producers and production companies from liability should a crew member get hurt on the job, our instructor did recite a statistic that accidents are down 25% throughout the Industry since the plan went into effect. This may or may not mean much, given the slippery nature of statistical analysis, but a glass-half-full interpretation points towards progress of a sort.

No, it was something else that pissed me off. Although the true raison d’etre of Contract Services continues to elude me, it seems to function as a vague sort of interface between the unions, producers, and rank-and-file workbots. When a prospective member seeks to join an IA local, it's up to Contract Services to verify his/her employment record to ensure the prospect has worked the requisite thirty union days. Beyond that, I have no idea what the purpose of Contract Services really is, other than to run the Safety Passport Program. But now that their operations have been fully centralized -- with safety classes in one wing of their expensive new building, and all the other mind-numbing bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo at the other end -- there is no escaping their institutional grasp.

The people out there behind those thick glass windows are all very pleasant, but I can't shake a sense that whatever the original intent behind creating Contract Services, it has now morphed into one of those self-perpetuating bureaucracies whose main purpose is to justify (and thus continue) its own existence. The time-tested method of achieving that goal is to continually identify (read: create) "needs" that can then be addressed by elaborate new initiatives like the Safety Passport Program, which looks good on paper, but -- for the workers, at least -- is largely bogus. Such self-serving institutional maneuvers are the sort that drive otherwise normal, mild-mannered people to become wide-eyed, spittle-flecked anti-government zealots.

Not that I'm one of them, mind you. Not yet, anyway.

So what's got this juicer’s tool belt all tied up in knots? Like every other active IA member in Southern California, I’ve been receiving letters from Contract Services every three years urging me to drop in and renew my I-9 (citizenship) status. Each notice carries a warning that “failure to comply may result in suspension of your roster status.” Since being suspended from the roster renders an otherwise paid-up union member ineligible to work union jobs, that's a serious threat. The first time I got one of these notices – not knowing any better – I dutifully went in and turned over all my identification. Having thus complied, I naively went on my way assuming that after proving who I was, I would not have to repeat the exercise.*

Wrong. Three years later, I got another notice, and in talking to other union members, learned that this triennial song-and-dance is what Contract Services does best. That it made no sense whatsoever only compounded my frustration. What could have possibly have happened in the intervening three years to change my citizenship status? Do the good people at Contract Services really think I might have had some kind of mid-life crisis that led me to renounce my American citizenship and flee across the border to live as an illegal alien in Mexico? Did I have a change of heart after suffering one-too-many bouts of Montezuma's Revenge, and hire a coyote to guide me back across the Rio Grande, then fight my way across the killer deserts following the siren call of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula? Did I cleverly resume living at the very same address, with the exact same phone number as before?

Does Contract Services seriously believe that I might now be un mojado, unable to legally live or work here in El Norte?**

And if not, they why the fuck should I have to repeatedly prove to them that “I yam what’s I yam” – that is, who I was is who I am, and who I shall forever be, ‘til death takes me down?

If this dog-and-pony show actually did some good – if verifying my citizenship/identity to Contract Services would allow me to forgo filling out the endless I-9 forms before each and every new job, then I’d be all for it. In these days of rampant identity theft, writing down one's social security number on five or six separate forms during the course of filling out a typical start packet is just asking for trouble. Reams of these forms have been found in studio dumpsters, tossed by some careless asshole in production after his/her show was canceled. Some have even turned up on other shows, being used as prop paperwork in an office setting. Clearly, such sensitive information is not always being treated with the respect it -- and we -- deserve. By helping to minimize this information outflow, Contract Services could at least do something useful for a change by reducing the risks of Industry related ID theft.

But no, that makes too much sense. Even if we dutifully report to Contract Services every three years, we still have to fill out all that ridiculously redundant paperwork every god-damned time. So it’s all for nothing, leaping through idiotic hoops simply to comply with regulations that have the very real potential to do much more harm than good.***

The only way I could resist this bureaucratic theater of the absurd -- to, in the words of Spike Lee, “fight the power” -- was by ignoring those letters from Contract Services as they arrived every three years. Since there’d been no apparent repercussions over my failure to report over the past fifteen years (my roster status was never challenged), it seemed I’d managed to score a tiny-but-meaningful victory against the tsunami of defeat that is modern life. But with Contract Services now having centralized operations, the moment I signed in for the A-2 class, I was directed to the next window to prove who I was.


So I did it – I surrendered my driver’s license and social security card for verification, and with that my plucky little island of symbolic victory was swept under by the dark flood. And now that it seems we’ll be forced to take an endless series of these “safety” classes as time rolls on, I’ll be doing the same stupid thing in another three years.

I guess we can’t really fight City Hall -– or Contract Services -- after all.

* Back then, Contract Services also administered a test at the same time to determine if we were color-blind. Not anymore.

** Mexican-Spanish slang for “wetback.”

*** And I say this as one who supports sane and effective government regulation of business and industry...


Nathan said...

I finally got a time card from a Payroll company that only asks for the last 4 digits of my Social Security #. I started writing "on file" on all of them years ago.

AnonymousDweeb said...

First, I work on the paper-pushing side, and having seen it up close, these are the LAST jobs that will ever leave.

While miners in the CA gold rush may have ended up broke, the guys selling them pans and jeans made millions.

Unions are like that. The individual worker bee may scrape by, but the quality of their unions buildings and salaries will only improve year after year, along with the quantity of paperwork they will require.

Michael Taylor said...

Nathan --

Good idea. I might try that next time.

AnonymousDweeb --

I suspect you're right. My union is currently spending millions of dollars on a new building very few among the rank-and-file felt we really needed -- but the union officers wanted it, so the deal went down. Contract Services is another bureaucratic beast altogether, not part of the unions, but working with them in ways I don't understand. Trying to fight them is like punching air.

The whole thing reminds of "Brazil," Terry Gilliam's great, if rather depressing movie.

AnonymousDweeb said...

There is something about the buildings... They are usually very nice. I would love to work in one personally! I'm thankful for any work though, so that's what I focus on.