Union works for
Members of Chicago Local 476 picketed a non-union production shooting in the city last weekend. Inspired to protect the opportunities, wages, and benefits of its members, the Studio Mechanics believe that their protest also serves interests far beyond the production community.
It’s a rather convincing argument.
“We are taking a new stance and we’re going to be picketing any jobs that come to exploit our city,” says Local 476 Business Agent Mark Hogan. “If they don’t want to pay the area standards and benefits to people, they’re going to hear from us. We did this like nine or ten years ago, and it worked very well.”
Founded in 1931 as a chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Local 476 represents professionals in a variety of job categories — from gaffer and electrician to hair stylist and script supervisor, with more than five-dozen in between.
Welcome to Chicago
Last weekend’s action was provoked by a Brazilian TV show with a production office in New York. Although Local 476 President Bradley Matthys admits, “we’ll probably never see them again,” he believes that the protest was a helpful way “to send a message.”
“There are different reasons why we go after them,” he continues. “When this Brazilian company goes back to New York, they might tell their associates that if you don’t go union, you’re going to see some people on your shoot.”
The protest fell within the official designation of an “Informational Picket,” and, according to Hogan, it was conducted in accordance with local, state, and federal regulations.
“We’re just telling people that these companies are not paying area standards,” he explains. “I notify the Chicago Police when we set that picket line up — they’re all in a union too — and if they tell us to go home, which they have before, we go home.”
“We’re not coming in and twisting arms or whatever,” adds Matthys. “We want to talk about these things and bargain in good faith.”
While expressing immediate concern for non-union workers who lack the kind of retirement and health care benefits offered by Local 476 — “health care drives everything,” says Matthys — both officers are quick to explain how production companies can also benefit by contracting with unions.
“Let’s start with training,” says Hogan. “Frankly, there’s no school that teaches what we teach. Our courses are designed and taught by seasoned professionals with hands-on experience using the latest technology. Our members also complete OSHA 10 safety training.”
Additionally, according to Matthys, the Local 476 talent pool includes 1,600 members — “the cream of the crop” — and many of them have worked together on various productions for decades.
“Production coordinators would be the first ones to tell you what a big difference it is to use non-union as opposed to the experienced professionals we represent,” he continues. “The safety aspect is a huge advantage as well.”
Besides production companies, Matthys says that a variety of vendors can benefit from the efforts of Local 476.
“Chicago has some of the top advertising agencies and advertisers in the world, and they tend to go out to the coasts for production,” he explains. “In the old days, that made sense. But now the city has production in spades — camera and lighting companies, rental houses, caterers — and there’s no excuse to take these jobs out of town.”
And perhaps most importantly, Local 476 helps local communities in ways that seem impossible for out-of-town production companies
“We have roughly seven or eight members who came through the training and internship program at CineCares and there are many more in the queue,” Matthys continues. “We also work with Free Spirit Media and our in-house training is open to non-members. These young kids are the trailblazers of the future.”
ALSO READ: Four CineCares interns voted into Local 476
Keeping up with the production evolution
Hogan and Matthys, who wield decades of crew experience dating back to The Blues Brothers, acknowledge that the business has changed.
“Anybody can hang a shingle and say I’m in business and shoot a movie on an iPhone now,” says Hogan. “We understand that.”
At the same time, their understanding of the production evolution offers another benefit that cannot be found elsewhere.
“Margins are squeezed and it’s a lot harder to produce a commercial,” says Matthys. “We’re sensitive to that, and people can talk to us before they shoot, and maybe we can come to an agreement and get a rate that can work. This isn’t a heavy-handed thing.”
To that end, the Local 476 Collective Bargaining Agreement contains a section titled, Low Budget and PSA’s and Spec Commercials, specifically for commercial shoots that have “a single day production cost that does not exceed $75,000 or an aggregate cost of more than $300,000.”
According to Hogan, several Chicago-based companies have taken advantage of the Low Budget stipulation.
“Story, One at Optimus, Quriosity, Tessa, MK Films, Big Shoulders, Cap Gun Collective, and several others,” he says. “They have all been great with hiring unions.”
Production companies can also hire outside of a traditional contract if they agree to pay for the workers’ benefits package. And if that doesn’t work, Local 476 is still committed to seeing that the job gets done, even if it goes non-union.
“We don’t stop our workers as long as they tell us about it,” says Matthys. “We love to work with these production companies because we realize what they’re up to. If there’s a deal to be had, and it turns out that the budget isn’t there, they’re not going to see a picket line 90% of the time.”
But if production companies attempt to ignore Local 476 completely, they’re going to get what they don’t pay for.
“We’ve got a lot of ways to find out about these productions,” says Matthys. “We have a lot of intel on what’s going where, and we’re tracking these jobs, and when we think they should be ours, people are going to see us.”
Send your production updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, firstname.lastname@example.org.