January 28, 2005

Lights. Industrial action!

1/20 The Economist

Lights. Industrial action!

Jan 20th 2005 | HOLLYWOOD

A strike looms in Hollywood

IS HOLLYWOOD, so accustomed to luvvy-duvvy self-congratulation (this month the Golden Globes, next month the Oscars), about to indulge in a hardball labour dispute? America’s 500-or-so casting directors and associatesâthe unsung people-brokers who select actors for a film’s director or producerâare threatening to strike if the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) refuses to grant them union recognition and health and pension benefits.

Since the AMPTP represents the big studios and, by extension, big corporations such as General Electric and Viacom, it might seem an unequal contestâexcept that the Casting Society of America (CSA), representing 368 of the casting directors, has the backing of the 1.4m-strong, much feared International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters represent some 4,100 studio drivers, location managers and location scouts, and their refusal to cross picket lines would be hard to ignore. In other words, the AMPTP has a bit of a headache, made worse by the need this week to resume negotiations for a new three-year contract with the 98,000-member Screen Actors Guildâbrilliantly satirised recently in the movie âTeam Americaâand the 80,000-strong American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

Even so, the studios are not about to admit defeat. In an informal meeting with the CSA last week, the AMPTP offered to provide health and pension benefits (âthe studios are very sympathetic,â says one studio insider), but remained adamantly opposed to unionisation. Its position ahead of a meeting scheduled for early next month is that the casting directors are independent contractors: if they form a collective bargaining unit they will automatically be in breach of federal and state antitrust lawsâand the Teamsters will be guilty of inducing them to breach their contracts with the studios.

Yet virtually every other group in Hollywood, from scriptwriters to costume designers, belongs to a guild or union that negotiates working conditions. Moreover, as the CSA pointed out late last week in an advertisement in the trade press, âalmost all other groups, including actors, directors, writers, drivers, location managers, production office co-ordinators, grips, electricians, editors, costumers and craft servicesâ receive health insurance and a pension plan. Steve Dayan, of the Los Angeles Teamsters, says bluntly: âForget the legal issues. Morally and ethically the studios should be taking care of these people.â The studios may be ready to agree benefits, he says, but without a union to protect them, how can the casting directors be sure that the agreements will be kept?
Embarrassingly for the studios, many movie people agree. As Woody Allen puts it: âCasting directors are responsible for the one element that holds audiences in thrall more than any other: the cast. How can they not be afforded the health and retirement benefits the rest of the community enjoys? I support their unionisation effort.â Gone are the days when the seductive power of the casting couch over aspiring stars was compensation enough

The committee then explained, “Today, we posed the question to the AMPTP: If they have union agreements with all our peers, why not us?”

The answer appeared to be that the AMPTP has stuck to its offer of non-affiliate status.

The casting leaders also noted that they are continuing to advertise the casters’ position in trade-publication ads “and urging our producers, directors, and friends to support us.”

Earlier in 2004, the casting directors — communicating through the Teamsters union — had asked the AMPTP to recognize them as a union. The AMPTP refused, arguing that the casters were independent contractors.

In mid-December, over 400 casters met in both New York and Los Angeles, “overwhelmingly” voting to align with the 1.4-million-member Teamsters union. By late December, the AMPTP had told the Teamsters to be prepared to go to court should the casting directors move to strike. The producers opined that planning a strike violates both federal antitrust and state unfair-competition laws.

The threat deterred neither the Teamsters nor the casters, with Teamster leaders — led by General President James P. Hoffa — writing to the AMPTP, expressing their dedicated support of the casting directors. The union and casting directors also were preparing to call a press conference as early as this week to announce whether the casters would strike. That plan evidently led the AMPTP to meet with the casters and the Teamsters union last Friday. Steve Dayan, a business representative for the Teamsters’ L.A. local, said on Tuesday that the press conference had been rescheduled for Jan. 26. Dayan said he would not comment on last Friday’s meeting.

On Monday, the casting directors’ steering committee, saying it was gathering quotes of support from industry notables, released a brief statement from director Mike Nichols:

“I was shocked to hear that casting directors aren’t provided with the basic benefits that many others receive automatically. So many casting directors have worked tirelessly over the years to provide the best acting ensembles for our films and TV shows. It makes no sense that they be treated any differently than any other key crew members. I support their unionization effort.”Â

In the meantime, the Teamsters and casters were to begin running ads in entertainment trade publications this week to inform the public of their stance, Dayan said.

Posted by Clint at January 28, 2005 12:05 AM