Chicago not included as Teamsters organize casting directors for first-ever benefits

An 18-month effort by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to organize casting directors under Los Angeles Local 399 and New York Local 817 seems be on the brink of success.

But casting directors in Chicago and other cities are being left outside the union hall, at least for the moment.

At a February 1 meeting in L.A., representatives of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) agreed with Teamsters officials and a casting directors’ steering committee to hold an election within 90 days.

The vote, to be sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board, will allow casting directors and their associates to accept or reject Teamsters affiliation. As casting directors by the hundreds already have participated in the effort to unionize, the outcome seems a sure thing.

The Teamsters then would negotiate a first-ever casting directors collective bargaining agreement with AMPTP, with health care and a guaranteed minimum pay scale as the central issues.

One wonders why the Teamsters didn’t organize a new national local for all casting directors.

In an Email to this reporter, spokesperson Margie Simkin observed: “It is also our hope that once we complete our efforts in New York and L.A. we can explore other cities where it might be possible to include film and TV casting directors.

“We appreciated the support of those casting directors in their promises not to scab if a strike had occurred and we fully intend to explore the possibility of providing them with the protections we have fought for.”

It appears that organizing as Teamsters will undercut the purpose of the Casting Society of America (CSA) as the gold standard of the industry, reducing its role largely to an honorary one.

CSA and Teamster officials deny this, but they are just as quick to say that the unionizing effort embraces independents as well as CSA members, and was not an official policy of the CSA.

What’s unspoken is that the CSA by itself lacked sufficient clout to wrest a collective bargaining agreement from the AMPTP.

Indeed, up until the 11th hour at the Feb. 1 meeting, AMPTP’s public stance was that casting directors are independent contractors and that efforts to unionize them violated both California and Federal law.

In the end, however, the producers backed down when faced with a strike deadline by the Teamsters, and the fact that SAG, AFTRA and the DGA were among numerous trade and craft unions supporting the casting directors.

With Teamsters alone honoring a picket line, all episodic TV and theatrical film production would have been shut down and pilot season would have gone down the tubes. Even TV commercial shoots might have been canceled if they were dependent on Teamster drivers, although commercials casting is not the target of the organizing effort according to Teamsters Los Angeles business agent Steve Dayan.

Also left uncovered for the time being are casting directors for legitimate theatre, a trade specialty that’s particularly important in New York, and less so in Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Locally, only the largest theatres?such as Goodman, Steppenwolf and the Marriott Theatre?hire casting directors and mostly when they need to cast certain roles outside the local talent pool.

Simkin said in her Email that the Teamsters expect to “facilitate a similar effort in the theatrical community” and that New York legitimate theatre casting agents “are fully expecting to proceed with that effort in the near future.”

Veteran Chicago casting director and CSA member Jane Alderman observes that she and her colleagues “need some union. With everything from personal safety to getting paid on time, you have no recourse except the courts. We all chase down our money.”

Steve Scott, associate producer for the Goodman Theatre, acknowledges that even in legitimate theatre casting “there is no minimum standard they can fall back on.”

Alderman and Scott agree that unionization will have no immediate impact on Chicago’s theatre industry, but acknowledge there could be impact down the road as union-imposed minimum rates of pay and benefits rise.

Alderman surmised that a multi-code system most likely would be developed similar to those used by Equity, SAG and AFTRA. Different codes would apply to the various disciplines (feature film, experimental film, series TV, theatre, etc.) with tiered minimum levels within each discipline.