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Conflict erupts inside theatrical stage employees union

LABOR

Leaders defend benefit cuts in a proposed pact with Hollywood film and TV studios, but critics say they go too far.

March 04, 2009|Richard Verrier

Although much of the entertainment industry has focused on the civil war inside the Screen Actors Guild, another powerful Hollywood union is wrestling with its own internal conflict over a proposed contract with the studios.

Leaders of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, whose members include 35,000 who work behind the scenes on film and television sets, are facing a high level of dissent from the rank and file over a contract that includes modest pay increases but also deep cuts in the union's coveted health and pension benefits.

The union's brass says the cuts are necessary to plug a projected $580-million deficit in the health plans largely due to rising medical costs.

Critics say the cuts go too far and will force thousands of union members and their families to lose their health insurance. Under the proposed three-year contract, members would be required to work 400 hours every six months, up from the current 300 hours, to keep their benefits.

Concerns about work hours have grown as production activity has slowed to a crawl.

Many of the union's members are still struggling to recover from the losses sustained in the writers strike last year and by the uncertainty caused by the SAG contract talks.

Last year, the studios rushed to wrap feature films by June 30, causing a severe drop in production during the second half of 2008. The credit crunch has caused studios to further scale back production.

"At a time when our nation is increasingly concerned about the growing number of people who don't have health insurance, this is the wrong direction to be going in," said Doug Knapp, a camera operator with the union's Local 600, who helped launch a website called 400hours.com to fight ratification of the contract.

Knapp estimates that roughly 10% of the union's film and TV members -- 3,500 -- will lose health coverage as a result of the 400-hour requirement.

The new threshold is a divisive issue for many union members, who've tended to accept lower pay increases in exchange for preserving their health benefits, for which enrollees don't pay premiums.

Unlike most actors and writers, the union's members don't earn direct payments from prior work on TV shows and movies. Instead, payments that would be earmarked for residuals are funneled into a fund for health and pension plans.

Union President Matt Loeb declined to comment. In a message accompanying the "memorandum of agreement" mailed to members last week, Loeb strongly urged members to support the contract, warning that a "vote against ratification is a vote to authorize a strike." Ballots are due back March 18.

Despite the opposition, it is unlikely the contract will be shot down. The leaders of the union's various locals have given their blessing to the contract. Indeed, the union is known for having friendly relations with the studios and has long advocated early contract talks, reasoning that it helps foster labor peace.

So few were surprised when the union announced an agreement in November -- eight months before the current contract expires. But when details of the agreement dribbled out, guild leaders faced a hostile reaction from union members such as Knapp.

"I only had 287 hours in the last six months," said the camera operator, who worked on the Warner Bros. TV series "Moonlight" before it was canceled and the TV movie "Merry Christmas Drake & Josh."

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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