By Dinah Eng
The image of labor unions is usually that of the working man—and working woman—banding together to ensure fair practices in the workplace. Like everything else in Hollywood, though, image is not necessarily reality.
IATSE—the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts—represents most of the people behind the scenes of television production, film, live theater and trade shows.
Various locals represent electricians, grips, carpenters, set dressers, camera operators and other valuable but mostly invisible members of the crew who make every production possible.
Getting jobs in these arenas and moving up the ranks is hard. Harder still if you’re a female or a minority without seniority when the calls come in.
“In most cases, I was treated fairly, but in some instances, I felt I was excluded because of race,” says Ted Zachary, a retired African-American stagehand and former president of Local 33 who still serves on its board.
Zachary got his start in television working for a number of Norman Lear shows, including “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “Diff’rent Strokes.”
“One of the men I knew was head prop man for ‘The Jeffersons,’ and he wanted an assistant,” Zachary says. “If it wasn’t for the black shows, I would never have been a prop man.”
If you think Zachary’s experience in the 1980s is history long gone, listen to what Kristin Glover, national co-chair of the Diversity Committee of Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG), has to say.
“There are so many levels of chauvinism and racism,” says Glover, who is white. “People made jokes to an African-American member that they were going to burn a cross in that person’s yard, and thought the person should laugh about it. The level of ignorance in this day is shocking.”
Even when workers know they’re harassed, “there’s tremendous fear of reporting and reprisal,” Glover says.
“People in a freelance world are so fearful about keeping their job, or getting the next job and being seen as a troublemaker. I have no idea how to solve that problem except to bring more diversity training to our members and the board.”
Glover says the Local 600 Diversity Committee recommended a two-day diversity workshop for its board and staff, which agreed to a two-hour training session.
“That’s a huge amount of success,” she says.
“I’ve had people overhear guys choosing a second camera assistant based on the size of her breasts,” she says. “Women being groped and told they have to sleep with someone to keep their jobs has not gone away.”
Glover, who retired as a camera operator because of injuries to her neck, says she can speak out now because she’s not fearful of losing a job. She tells stories of being groped on sets while her hands were inside a “changing bag,” loading film in the darkness.
“You had to keep your hands in the bag until the magazine was closed tight,” says Glover, who says one man waited until her hands were in the bag and she couldn’t do anything except scream for him to get away from her. He did so, laughing.
In a 2004 ICG membership survey, 53 percent of female members said they had been discriminated against or harassed because of gender. Fewer than 2 percent of male members had. When it came to race, 12 percent of Latino, 22 percent of Asian/Pacific, and 37 percent of African-American members said they had been discriminated against or harassed.
We can’t be responsible for the anger and fear in others. But if colleagues are saying that unfair things are happening around us, we can stop to listen. We can help—whether it’s our problem or not.
Decency and heart get short shrift when budgets are tight, but in the long run, those who succeed are the ones who reach out to others, building a network of relationships that lasts long after a show is over.
Glover’s committee is creating an apprenticeship program through neighborhood outreach to bring young women and minorities into the business, as well as sponsoring scholarships to help people learn the skills to move up the ranks.
If others offered a hand in the same way, it would bring real meaning back to the word “union.”
Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.