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Hollywood Unions Want Closer Look at Workday Issue


PALM SPRINGS — In the two months since the fatal car accident of an assistant camera operator after a 19-hour day on the set, a movement has taken hold in the entertainment industry to curtail excessive workdays on TV and movie sets. Thousands, including big-name directors and actors as well as rank-and-file crew members, have signed a petition asking for a 14-hour shooting limit.

But unions representing most of those crew members and movie producers who met here Tuesday and Wednesday stopped short of implementing a plan to tackle the problem, opting instead to form a committee to come up with a solution.

Long workdays were a key issue at the quarterly meeting this week of the bargaining members of International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, the union representing many Hollywood workers, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Union members and producers alike were divided on possible solutions, such as staggered or split work shifts and the feasibility of creating financial incentives for shorter workdays.

The discussion was prompted by the March 6 death of 35-year-old Brent Hershman, who fell asleep at the wheel while driving home after working 19 hours on the set of the New Line Cinema film "Pleasantville." After his death, Hershman's co-workers drafted "Brent's Rule," a petition that asks that the filming workday be limited to 14 hours. The petition has been widely circulated and has more than 10,000 signatures. It has also been endorsed by the Screen Actors Guild and has prompted the Directors Guild to form a committee to examine long hours worked in the entertainment industry.

But after lengthy closed-door sessions, the two unions jointly released only a terse statement: "The bargaining parties of the AMPTP and IATSE have agreed that an industrywide committee made up of its members and members of the Directors Guild, Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guilds be formed to look into the problem and come up with solutions."

The business agent of one of the key IATSE locals had told The Times that its members were expecting the meeting would result in some resolution. Indeed, authors of the petition expressed disappointment and frustration over the unions' limited stand.

'They're very hush-hush about it," said Bruce McCleery, one of the authors of Brent's Rule and a gaffer on "Pleasantville." "We've been waiting for some endorsement or some statement from the IA. They're so reticent to do so because they're afraid of violating the contract."

Petition backers had hoped that the unions would recommend the 14-hour cap on work hours.

"This is an issue that benefits from the light of day," said John Lindley, director of photography on "Pleasantville" and another of the petition's authors. "More people will die; Brent won't be the last person. It seems like a time for real action."

Lindley, McCleery and cinematographer Haskell Wexler pushed for change this week in an impassioned letter to IATSE President Tom Short.

"We are writing to encourage you to defend the lives of all film workers at the quarterly meetings with the AMPTP this week," the letter said. "Brent Hershman was not the first person to die because of excessive working hours, and he will not be the last unless there is a change. In this country, we have legislated limits to the work days of railroad engineers, airplane pilots, truck drivers, anyone whose fatigue puts others' lives in jeopardy. . . . You will not find anyone across the table from you this week who supports drunk driving. How can they support putting exhausted drivers on the road?"

They had hoped Short would read the letter at the meeting but were unable to verify whether he had received the letter.

Some union members who were not at the meeting speculated that the unions took no action because they were afraid that that could necessitate reopening the IATSE contract, which doesn't expire until 2000.

But some saw the call to form a committee as a possible prelude to more active measures.

"This is their way of studying it and making it an issue that hopefully will have some staying power," McCleery said.

Though many in the industry favor some limits on hours worked--a host of one-hour television dramas and feature films regularly requires crew members to put in 20-hour days--some resist the idea of imposing cutoffs because of the hefty overtime pay allotted when workdays exceed eight hours.

Lindley pointed to measures taken on the set of "Pleasantville" as blueprints for other productions.

Since the death of Hershman, "Pleasantville" producers have offered tired workers free rides home, free motel rooms and coffee upon leaving. Producers are also encouraging crew members to stop working if they are too exhausted.

"It really goes above and beyond what the contract requires," Lindley said. "It's not made out of fear of some liability. . . . It's really a very human offer. And look what [producers] get in return in terms of safety and loyalty."

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