Stepping in It
A movie set, a pair of cowboy boots, and a pile of dog excrement illustrate how things can quickly go awry when unions lose sight of the greater good
By André van Heerden, Communications Director
Early in my career, I worked in the entertainment industry. I was on the production side, usually as a producer, director, or writer.
Making films is hard—especially low-budget ones—and you need all the help you can get. Unfortunately, one of the challenges I encountered over and over again was the short-sighted actions of the various unions (performers, camera, crew, transportation, etc.). I had the naïve notion that they would want to help filmmakers make movies because it would mean more work for their members.
But this was not always the case. Rather than working with us to find solutions that would benefit their members, it seemed the union reps only wanted to find new and petty ways of penalizing and holding up production.
No example of this attitude is more extreme—or bizarre—than one told to me by my director of photography about a time when he was shooting a film in Texas.
While parking the big film trailers in an open field, one of the drivers, who was also the head of transportation, stepped in dog poo. He went to the producer and demanded that the production company buy him a new pair of $500 cowboy boots. The producer said no.
The driver said that the union would shut down production unless he did. The producer still refused.
So the driver called his union, which promptly denied production access to the trucks and trailers. Without camera gear, washrooms, power generation, hair and makeup, food and water, and other necessities, the multimillion dollar production immediately ground to a halt.
Downtime on film sets can cost tens of thousands of dollars because of the number of people being paid but not working, the growing cost of equipment rentals, and multiple location fees. Time can equal big money.
The producer retaliated by threatening to fire the drivers. They countered by drawing their guns. A standoff ensued.
Eventually, the producer gave in. He was losing way more money than the cost of a new pair of boots. The production continued, but not without lots of tension, hard feelings, and fear.
Stories like this deservedly give unions a bad reputation. Conversely, I’ve heard stories about nonunion productions where actors and crew were expected to work in unsafe conditions, sometimes for 20-hour shifts with few breaks and little food. In some cases, they only received a fraction of their pay.
During the pandemic, I’ve heard people talking about the challenges they’re facing related to reduced wages or hours. The question I hear frequently from others is, “Are you unionized?”
That’s because unions absolutely do make a difference. If you’ve ever been injured, forced to work extra hours, or have been laid off, you know that unions can be life-changing. Unions keep employers honest and accountable.
But unions need to be accountable not only to their members but to the common good. Those that have a monopoly over labour can easily lose sight of what they’re called to do and the bigger picture and sometimes bully anyone in their way.
In labour relations, protecting and supporting workers is essential. But no one wants to see guns drawn over dog poo on a boot.