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Union Feud Erupts in Hollywood

October 12, 1987|MICHAEL CIEPLY | Times Staff Writer

Allen Price tends toward a messianic view of his duties as the business agent of the Affiliated Property Craftspersons Local 44, Hollywood's biggest craft union.

"I am considered the officer in charge of the welfare of the workers," Price patiently explained in an interview at his spartan North Hollywood office.

"I am considered their father. Their mother. Their priest. Their rabbi. . . . I'm their savior."

Still, top officers of the powerful International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees--with which the local is affiliated--take a much different view of Price's role among the prop workers.

The international union's president, Alfred DiTolla, last week issued a highly unusual "declaration of emergency" in the local. He appointed a San Francisco union executive as a hearing officer who will examine claims on Tuesday that could result in the suspension of some Local 44 officers or the recommendation that the local be placed in international trusteeship.

The international last week froze the local's bank accounts.

The emergency declaration details what it describes as "reliable and creditable information" that Price or his subordinates have:

--Run their union "in a dictatorial manner.'

--Disbursed funds without proper authorization or accounting.

--Engaged a "so-called 'labor consultant' " of admittedly criminal background.

--In the case of two subordinates created a "pervasive atmosphere of fear and intimidation" at the local by "means of threats of physical harm to members and their families and by direct and veiled statements of mob connections."

With those and other claims by both sides, a long-simmering dispute between the 68,000-member international union and some leaders of its biggest local has laid bare a side of union politics and practices that is usually kept well off-camera in Hollywood.

To some extent, the battle concerns a supposedly building tension between the prop workers and the studios. In the emergency declaration and in private conversations, Hollywood union officials and studio executives alike describe Local 44--whose 3,600 members include important special-effects people, as well as greens keepers, upholsterers, carpenters and other prop workers--as a renegade union that is making life miserable for both producers and employees by its excessively stringent enforcement of work rules.

"If their kind of shotgun approach to grievances continues, it will drive employers away" from Hollywood to Canada or non-union states, contends one officer of a sister craft union who declines to be identified.

Yet the 58-year-old Price and his allies at Local 44 strenuously dismiss all the international's claims against them as fabrications or misconceptions and strongly deny their aggressiveness is hurting Hollywood film production.

Moreover, they say the international, perhaps backed by studio managers, is trying to break them because they have been too conscientious in defending the workers' rights. "I was offered $100,000, to help destroy 44, by a faction of the (international alliance)," Joseph Basile, an assistant business manager and top aide to Price, charged in an interview with The Times.

Basile declined to say precisely who offered him the alleged payment to help undermine the local's leadership. But his claim is hardly the most startling one to surface in the dispute.

In the wake of a Daily Variety report about the emergency declaration last week, Basile claimed in interviews with both Variety and The Times to have received six anonymous death threats--including one telephone warning that explicitly said he would be killed if he defended himself against suspension at the union meeting scheduled for Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Joseph Franco, a Detroit-based consultant hired by the local earlier this year to "investigate" and resist incursions by the international or others, claimed that he was told several months ago by a lawyer then working for the local that "Mr. DiTolla says for you to get . . . out of town."

Subsequently, in July, says Franco, he was seriously beaten in his home by two men who told him to "stay out of California." The men mentioned no connection to the international or DiTolla, Franco says.

Mac St. Johns, a spokesman for the international, declined to discuss the union dispute in detail. But he said: "President DiTolla not only invites, but insists on a thorough and complete investigation of any threats to anybody in connection with the Local 44 matter."

To complicate matters further, the 63-year-old Franco is currently promoting his "Hoffa's Man," an autobiography (written with former New York Times reporter Richard Hammer) recently published by Prentice Hall Press, in which he claims to have committed several contract murders as a youth in Detroit.

Asked whether he found the book's claims an embarrassment to the local, Price last week said: "To the best of my knowledge, 'Hoffa's Man' is not an autobiography, and I have to take the assumption it is fictionalized."

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