The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is facing a moral and economic dilemma: Do its members cross a WGA (Writers Guild of America) picket line, thereby committing ideological treason; or do they defiantly refuse to cross, putting themselves in danger of losing their jobs? That call is far tougher than it may appear, even for a staunch union member.
As their strike against the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) enters its second week, some are already grumbling about what they view as a Teamster betrayal. There’s a rumor going around WGA picket lines that if the Teamsters had given them the support they initially “guaranteed,” the Writers would have the Alliance by the throat.
Because virtually everything-from prop equipment to food to personnel-is supplied by the Teamsters, they have the power to shut down a whole set. Shutting down a movie that’s been green-lighted and already in production? Now, that’s power.
Of course, no such guarantees were ever made. Legally, as well as practically, there was no way they could have been made. Stories like these always circulate during strikes. That’s what you do on the picket line: You talk about your plight.
One of the rumors we heard during a Local 672 strike (on which I was a negotiator) was that the Southern Pacific Railroad had promised the AWPPW, our parent International, that they wouldn’t cross our picket lines. We were ecstatic; we hadn’t expected it. Volume-wise, stopping the trains wasn’t as vital as stopping the trucks, but it was, if nothing else, a glorious symbolic victory.
When crunch time arrived, and picketers stood on the tracks outside the yard, waving their placards and cheering, we were told by Southern Pacific to move our people out of the way (apparently, some of our more stubborn picketers refused leave the track) or they’d call the police and have them arrested for obstruction. But what about your agreement to honor our pickets? we demanded. What agreement?!? they screamed. Hmmm. So much for rumors.
This railroad episode occurred shortly after the Teamsters informed us, with no sugar-coating or false hopes, that they would not be honoring our picketers. No way, no how. They indicated that the only picket lines they would even consider recognizing were those tied to national shutdowns, something on the order of the UAW’s strike against GM plants across the country (whose picket lines, alas, the Teamies didn’t honor).
Still, in the matter of the WGA, despite the temptation to point fingers, the Teamsters shouldn’t be judged too harshly. While the studio contracts don’t explicitly forbid a driver from choosing to honor a union picket line (which shouldn’t be confused with a going on “sympathy strike” or “secondary picketing,” which are not only more comprehensive but illegal), they do give the studios the right to fire a driver if he doesn’t show up for work and doesn’t have a valid excuse. In short, refuse to cross, and you can be fired.
Teamster leadership has made it clear that while refusing to cross a picket line is dangerous, it is hoped that the drivers will refuse nonetheless, that they’ll see the long-term advantages of staying “unified.” Accordingly, with only the union’s promise that it will do its best to get their jobs back if they’re fired, many drivers have flatly refused to cross the line.
That a handful of drivers have risked their jobs rather than abandon their principles may not appear impressive from a distance, but it looks damned impressive from close-up. Everybody spouts allegiance to principle until they’re asked to take a risky, potentially life-altering stand. Then they starting listing on the fingers of both hands the practical reasons for not doing it.
Some Teamsters have found creative ways to serve both masters, to remain, technically, “union-pure” and yet keep their jobs. Because WGA picketers work four-hour shifts, consisting of a morning session (from 9-1) and an afternoon session) from 1-5), some drivers began making deliveries earlier than usual, before the picketers showed up, to avoid the dilemma of whether or not to cross. Writer websites have noted that the WGA wised up and began assigning pickets as early as 7:00 a.m.
Drivers are stopping outside the studio gates, refusing to cross the picket lines but inching as close as possible to the entrance, to permit hand-dollies to be used to unload their cargo. Also, according to reports on WGA chat sites, Teamsters are engaging in a quasi-slowdown, where even after crossing the line, they make every effort to slow down and disrupt the operation, short of getting themselves written up or fired.
A negative: Many drivers sill remember that in 1988 the WGA refused to honor Teamster picket lines, and that their reasons for refusing weren’t exclusively practical; in truth, they were far from noble. There was class warfare at work; blue-collar vs. white-collar distinctions, college degree vs. high school diploma distinctions, the feeling that truck drivers weren’t quite “worthy” of a major sacrifice. Anyone who denies these dynamics is fooling himself.
Another negative, filed under “Rumors”: Teamster drivers began spreading reports of large numbers of writer-slash-producers already crossing the picket lines. (“Hey, if they won’t support their own strike, why should I risk my job for it?”). Coupled with entertainment celebrities like Vince Vaughn and Jimmy Kimmel declaring publicly that they’ll defy the strike, some drivers (mainly the younger guys) are having a problem regarding this whole thing as anything more than an elitist, Hollywood food-fight.
Overall, however, it hasn’t been all bad news with the Teamsters. It’s been heartening to hear them speak out about the importance of showing solidarity. While there aren’t near enough driver refusals to give anyone reason to rejoice, there have been some; and that, along with the slow-downs, qualifies as a minor triumph.
More importantly, even if the WGA hasn’t reciprocated in the past, and some grudges are still being nursed, the Teamsters have shown themselves shrewd and mature enough to recognize that if management is allowed to crush the WGA, they’ll be encouraged to crush other unions. There’s wisdom in that observation.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: email@example.com