I.A.T.S.E. Local 476 is sending VP Joe Connelly on a mission to forge partnerships with advertising agencies and commercial shops throughout the city. A production industry supplier with deep roots, the Chicago Studio Mechanics Union intends to reinforce a foundation it laid nearly a century ago.
“This union is built on commercial work,” says Local 476 President Brad Matthys. “We have appointed Joe to remind the industry that we offer low-budget agreements for lower budget commercials.”
Contacting the companies that engage in “double-breasting” — the practice of spinning off non-union subsidiaries to work on lower budget jobs — will be a priority. Describing the positive effects of mutual cooperation will be the message.
Local 476’s expertise, training, and safety are designed to increase quality and efficiency on set, no doubt; but the union also makes an effort to extend its benefits far beyond individual workers, and the results have been good for the entire city. They help make the Studio Mechanics much more than a typical Union.
“Every production company we work with is our partner,” Matthys continues. “We want to partner with these production companies to bring as much work to Illinois and Chicago as possible.”
Additionally, Illinois is one of the only states in the country that applies its film tax incentive to TV commercials. It generally reduces the total budget by 30%.
Few people understand this scenario better than Joe Connelly, who is heading up the effort to spread the word.
Meet Joe Connelly
Before becoming an officer, Connelly spent nearly two decades helping to bring commercials to life as a key grip for Local 476. “I did a lot of Michael Jordan stuff, a lot of Nike stuff,” he recalls. While gaining more experience on the union’s advertising side, he also saw its client base shrink. Now, in the midst of Chicago’s production boom, he believes that restoring the balance is a win-win for everybody.
“The commercial market has picked back up, but it’s employing a lot of non-union companies, especially the productions coming in from out of town,” he explains. “There’s probably some great workers out there doing non-union jobs, and we’d like to organize them and get them some representation and most of all benefits.”
In return for hiring union crews, productions are guaranteed a tradition of expertise that goes back nearly a century.
Founded in 1931, I.A.T.S.E. Local 476 Studio Mechanics Union supplies the production industry with workers in dozens of job categories. The organization represents electricians, gaffers, property masters, hairstylists, special effects technicians, landscapers, and dozens of other disciplines. Basically, everything needed to make movies and commercials except cameras, talent, trucks, and wardrobe, which are supplied by Local 600, SAG-AFTRA, the Teamsters, and local 769.
The logical choice
Local 476 Business Manager Mark Hogan appointed Connelly to his current role. With experience working on commercials ranging from political ads for President Barack Obama and Governor JB Pritzker to million dollar productions featuring Michael Jordan, he has no doubts that he hired the right person for the job, and he also intends to help spread the message.
“I’m going to be out there with Joe,” Hogan says. “This takes a lot of work. Joe knows all the players in commercial production and he has the connections with the owners of the equipment houses. He was the logical choice.”
Like any of the union’s members, Connelly and Hogan are strong advocates of Local 476’s training program, which begins with in-house safety classes at its customized in-house facility.
“Every new member that we bring in starts with OSHA 10 class,” Connelly explains. “We start by introducing people to the on-set dangers and their responsibility for reporting them. Everything we do has the potential to be dangerous — there are rain towers, water apparatus, smoke machines, electricity — and our OSHA instructor has been in the business for almost 50 years.”
Matthys says that this commitment to safety is one of the greatest reasons for bringing the Studio Mechanics into production.
“We’ve been told by a lot of people who do these non-union commercials that there are often safety issues on these non-union jobs,” he explains. “We’re going to be very vigilant about finding out who these companies are and flipping them to union.”
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Mastering the job
After the safety introduction, the training continues with on-set instruction and stays up to date on emerging technology and best practices. According to Connelly, it’s the best way for production workers to achieve and maintain complete competence
“You cannot be an AD or a gaffer or a key grip or whatever,” he says, “not in the big picture, not in the true professional sense, unless you master your job.”
This is especially true in specific areas of production like advertising, where the job often begins before the cameras start rolling.
“On a commercial, a key grip should at least scout the location beforehand to get an understanding where they’re going to be and what equipment they need,” he says.
When production begins, it comes with a unique set of standards and practices.
“With film, you’re going to do similar things every day,” Connelly continues. “Commercials are different: we don’t do short days. We do long hours — you’re looking at probably no less than a twelve-hour day, lots of fast-paced work, and things are changing all the time. The commercial guys don’t go home until they have all the shots done.”
But beyond the procedures and the knowhow, he emphasizes work ethic and attitude above all else.
“Flexibility, level-headedness, willingness to learn, and think-on-your-feet problem-solving are required all the time,” he says. “A lot of entry-level people are coming in to the industry without any kind of professional experience. I am a member of this union and this is what I chose to do for my career.”
Your union at work
Finally, Local 476 is an original and ongoing partner of the CineCares Foundation, which helps young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods gain a foothold in the film industry. Through the organization’s Mirkopoulos Internship Program, the Studio Mechanics have referred for hire many entry-level workers from North Lawndale, where the second largest production studio in the country is located.
It also recently teamed up with all of the IATSE Locals to complete Operation Warm, a program that brings winter clothing to kids in Chicago.
“For the past few years, Local 476 — along with IATSE Local 2, Local 110, and Local 769 — bought thousands of dollars worth of warm coats for little kids in disadvantaged neighborhoods and donated them to the Douglas Library right there in North Lawndale and other West and Southside libraries,” says Hogan. “It was about $20k worth of clothing this year alone. Those are your unions at work and giving back to the communities.”