Teamsters take own paths in writers strike
Drivers are left to decide for themselves whether to stop work for studios in support of striking writers.
By Joseph Menn
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
November 12, 2007
Rick Valencia stared through his windshield at the Hollywood writers pacing in front of the Paramount Studios gate, a blur of red T-shirts and picket signs blocking his passage.
He'd been driving trucks for more than three decades, but earned less in a year than some of these writers made in a week. Scribes in the upper echelon of the Writers Guild of America were bona-fide members of the Hollywood elite. The 57-year-old driver reflected on how enraged he had been in 1988 when writers crossed a Teamster picket line he had been walking.
Yet Valencia, who was hauling construction equipment for Paramount Pictures, wasn't clenching his teeth in anger as he idled in front of the picketing mob for the first time last week. He sat in his truck in anguish. Should he risk his job by standing up for union membership and the right to a decent wage?
He crossed slowly, in no hurry for pickets to clear a path. "I'm happy to wait," Valencia said later. Studios had threatened to replace Teamsters who failed to show up for work, but they could do little to workers' who moved sluggishly through the day in quiet solidarity with the writers.
Hundreds of Teamsters such as Valencia were experiencing their own moral dilemmas last week amid the first major Hollywood strike in two decades.
The Teamsters, which supply not only drivers but location managers and casting directors, have the power to shut down the entertainment industry. Their trucks deliver the materials for making sets, the lighting equipment and other gear needed on location to keep the cameras rolling.
But local Teamster leaders have left members to decide for themselves what to do rather than wind up in court. The studios maintain that a sympathy strike would be illegal and have threatened to replace Teamsters who honor the line.
"I sympathize with these people, but we got a memo saying: 'You will go to work or you'll be fired,' " said a driver who works for Paramount and asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak about internal company matters. Two years away from retirement, the driver said he couldn't afford not to cross even though "it breaks my heart."
Studio employees said no-shows were rare last week and judged the slowdowns as a minor annoyance. Most rank-and-file Teamsters said they had little choice but to work.
Yet in a town where writers are considered the passionate idealists, a small but noticeable contingent of drivers have proven to be the true believers.
It wouldn't matter if it were lawyers or doctors walking the line, "it's a union, and I'm union," said one Universal Studios tram driver in his 60s who stayed out of work.
Gary Compton, who was hauling construction gear for the teen drama "Greek," wasn't crossing over to the side of Big Media either last week.
"I'm worried about it financially, sure," he said of the risk that he would be fired. But he said if the studios managed to crush the Writers Guild of America, then other unions were vulnerable, too. "If they're able to break this union, it's going to snowball."
It pained the writers that Teamsters were still driving.
"If we got the support we were promised, this would be a lot shorter," television writer David Graziano said as he picketed Paramount.
Were people such as Graziano writing the strike script, the class divide between the two unions could set up a nice little drama. Maybe some more confrontation, and they'd need a romantic angle -- perhaps a soap-opera writer and a burly trucker would hit it off and bring the unions together.
But the real plot line isn't nearly as clean as in "Norma Rae," the pro-union movie celebrated in the lobby of the Local 399 union hall in North Hollywood. There hangs a photo of the film's star, Sally Field.
Local 399 Secretary-Treasurer Leo Reed wrote his membership just before the writers walked out Nov. 5, noting the provision in the union's contract that warned against a Teamster strike and the union's responsibility to "use its best efforts" to get employees to keep working. Reed said each member was responsible for making his or her own choice, adding that he would never cross.
"Remember, I believe that Teamsters do not cross picket lines!" Reed closed.
One studio filed a formal complaint about his comments with labor regulators. Local 399 returned the favor, filing a counter-complaint about the replacement threats. But the two sides have talked over the dispute and tentatively agreed to withdraw their grievances.
Contractually, the studios are barred from disciplining drivers who honor someone else's picket line. But they can replace anyone who doesn't come to work, essentially giving them the power to punish strikers.
Such confusion has prompted countless conversations among drivers and some painful interior monologues.
"Some drivers are saying, 'They're fighting for residuals, and I don't get residuals,' " said Stan Mataele, 45, who has refused to cross with his truck. "But we all gotta stick together."
The Teamsters are more inclined to stay on the job when they hear that some writer-producers, though a minority, are crossing lines, Reed said. "They may not be working as writers when they cross," Reed said. "But we aren't working as writers either, and they don't want us to cross."
Many have found the same middle ground as Valencia. They work, but not too quickly.
"All the writers are asking for is an old-fashioned idea called profit-sharing," said Valencia. "It's not like the studios have been enduring a giant financial downturn."
One 17-year van driver sat idling last week outside Paramount's Van Ness Avenue gate, waiting patiently for the pickets to clear the driveway.
The longer the wait, the better she felt about eventually having to enter the lot. "I'm union," she said, near tears. "My whole family's union."
Taking it a step further are people such as Jack Fisher, who has been driving set dressings for a movie he isn't allowed to name.
When he shows up at a studio and the pickets are there, Fisher leaves the truck in the street. If the production needs his load right away, people come out with handcarts, wasting time.
Fisher did that five times during one day last week, provoking a tongue-lashing from his nonunion superior. "I back the writers," said Fisher, 58, who did four tours of duty in Vietnam. "We're all one family."
Those drivers who work directly for the big studios that are leading the fight against the writers have the most to fear. Studios are looking for ways to wear down the unions. Those who work for independent production companies have less fear of retaliation, Reed said.
Teamsters who don't work for either have the least to worry about, which is why some delivery trucks carrying food and packages were unloading last week on the sidewalks outside of the studios. Many UPS, laundry truck and food service drivers are honoring the line, said Jim Santangelo, president of Teamsters Joint Council 42, which has 150,000 members in 24 local unions.
With pickets generally walking the line from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., those studio Teamsters who want to work without crossing can just go in early. Many have shifts that start before 7 a.m. anyway.
Some writers figured that out and began picketing as early as 6 a.m. That stopped Compton for the first time last week outside CBS Studio Center in Studio City.
Choosing his words carefully, Local 399's Reed said he wanted there to be more truckers such as Compton. "I hope more Teamsters don't cross," he said.