Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Film Unions, Florida, and You

So a couple weeks back, I coordinated an on air promo spot for Spike TV's TNA Wrestling. To make a long story short, all hell broke loose with the labor unions, and now my first big coordinating gig has become a statewide political hot potato in the industry. Anyone who wants to be active in film in Florida needs to read the following three emails. I won't comment on them much, as I like getting work. However, these are serious issues that anyone hoping to work here must be educated in.

First, Paul Meena of Universal (where the spot was being shot) gives his take on what happened:


I'm not sure how much you are still involved with the "politics" of production, but you should know that Spike did a film promo shoot with the TNA guys on Sunday and Monday on the Universal Lot .  It was non-union although there were some IA guys on the crew.  Well, needless to say the Union reps came down and strong armed the LA line producer.  This is a woman who works all the time, has an impeccable resume and works all over.  She is very used to having to negotiate with the unions and when working with a budget like she had, can usually negotiate one or two departments being union and the reps work with her.  Well, the small minded, short sighted Florida reps would have nothing of it.  It was all or they would shut her down. 
She made the deal, minimizing the impact to her budget, but here's yet another LA producer who has left our state saying that she never wants to come back and shoot in Florida again. 

I told the Line Producer she should call our Film Commissioner!!
Congratulations on another job well done! Yes, there are always two-sides, and yes, this particular handy work was Camera Local 600, not IA, but the end result was the same; another LA person having a bad experience in Florida. Tell me again how your efforts and tactics are beneficial to our state and our industry?
While so many of us are working so hard trying to get Legislation passed to make a better environment for all, I feel that Labor is single-handedly trying to derail all of our efforts. When I tried to place this item on the last FFEAC agenda, I was asked to take it off so as not to air our "dirty laundry" in a public forum; so I did. As much as I would like to add this to our meeting agenda next week in Tallahassee, again, I will not, for fear as to how Governor and Legislators might react, when we are so very close to getting our revised Bill passed.
We then tried to setup a gathering of Labor and production in Central Florida to again try and get the key players in a room and see if there is not some "common-ground" to be found in this union / non-union "right to work" state environment. Two days prior to that meeting, labor received a call from the National telling them "not to attend", so you stayed away. (so much for standing on your own two-feet, fixing our internal problems, and showing some form of "autonomy").

So the message that Labor is sending out seems to be pretty much, "It is our way, or no way." If your tactics and actions hurt the bigger picture, you don't really care. When I try to discuss w/you that your tactics are driving business out of Florida, you argue back, that is not true. Trust me on this one; when you literally bring an LA Producer to tears, she is not coming back to Florida, ever; she is sharing her horrific experience w/ all of her production friends and contacts; and all of the incentive money in the world is not going to change her mind; not when there are so many other choices out there.
Keep up the good work! You make us all proud!
Paul Meena
Break Away Productions
1000 Universal Studios Plaza
Building 22A; Suite 212
Orlando, FL  32819
407-224-3930 / Fax 407-224-3929

A few days later, Paul Sirmons, our state film commissioner, responded to Meena's letter thusly:



Greetings From Your Film Commissioner:

On Thursday, March 16, you and I received an email from a member of our industry who took issue with a specific action taken by a union against a commercial producer in Central Florida.

As your state film commissioner, I want to clear up this matter and put it behind us.

First of all, this situation happened on Monday, March 13th -- three days before the email was sent.  The author did not know that the Office of Film and Entertainment was not only aware of what went on, but did in fact communicate with the producer on that day. On the following morning (Tuesday), I personally met in Orlando with the union representatives for two hours, and later that day spoke for 40 minutes to the commercial producer by phone, with the goal of getting the facts, easing the impact of the situation, and creating an environment that would lessen the chance of things like this happening in the future.

When I spoke to the producer on Tuesday, she was indeed angry as the email indicates, and was considering writing a letter to the nationwide producing association to which she belongs about what happened. By the time we were done talking, the producer did admit that she could have and should have at least talked with the union reps. She accepted at least part of the blame for creating the situation.  Though she has the right to speak out about how she felt she was slighted in Florida, I felt after our talk she would not be doing so. If she does, I will respond and defend the good workers and conditions in our state.

In my talk with the union reps, they understood the damage that this type of action could have on the what we all are trying to accomplish to grow our industry. They have the absolute right to take the action they did. But they do realize that better communication earlier might prevent at least some of these situations, and they are working to improve that.

But this was not a case of union reps who "strong armed" the producer, as the email indicated.  Though it states this woman deals with unions all the time, the unions contacted her in the week before the shoot and she refused to speak with them. The letter claims the producer is "very used to having to negotiate with the unions" but the language she used with the union reps showed no respect for or acceptance of the right of the union to approach her on behalf of the workers. Furthermore, the letter states there were 'some IA guys' on the crew when in fact almost the complete crew were union members. It also stated that "this particular handy work was Camera Local 600" when in fact, it was Local 477's rep who called the producer and company. Furthermore, the union reps not only contacted her the week before, but also at that time contacted the California parent company, who referred them back to the producer and said she would have to make any deal. This was not a 'set-up' as the email seems to indicate, but the last step after numerous attempts to make a proposal to the producer, one that even the producer admitted after the fact would have had only a minor economic impact had she had negotiated in advance.

Had it been a case of  "strong armed" tactics by the union, I can assure you it would not be tolerated.  But it was clear to me this instance was not.


My point in writing this response is to let all of you know that I personally was aware of the situation once it happened, and dealt with the situation promptly. Progress was made due to thoughtful communication. I must admit I felt a little bushwhacked to see it resurrect days later in an email, when I felt the issue had already been resolved.

Union workers are a vital part of our state's workforce. We should remember that one of the major points we tout about our industry is the high average salary -- $53,000 -- and the credit for that lies mainly with our union workforce. Benefits like pension and health care, so important to Floridians today, are something unions provide. But non-union work in our industry is also a vital and welcome source of employment for our state's workers, and it will continue to be so.  There is room for both.

Most of you know what our small but dedicated staff is dealing with right now in Tallahassee. Our plate is overflowing, and we simply do not have time to deal with internal discord as we try and position our industry as one of the leaders of Florida's growing economy. I want to say "can't we all just get along" but it sounds too corny.

If we succeed in what we are trying to do to improve our incentive, we should have enough work in the state to make both union and non-union crews and producers very busy for many years.  That should be the goal of all of us for the next 60 to 90 days of legislative action, and it is my hope in doing so we will all reap the bounty of our good work, patience and dedication for many years to come.

But I need your help, all of you, working together, to get us there.


Paul Sirmons

State Film Commissioner

Office of Film and Entertainment

Oddly enough, the most educational summary and response of these events do not come from Meena or Sirmons, but from an industry insider named Al Crespo who is unconnected to these events. His letter comes closest to capturing my thoughts (and remember, I was there on the ground as it was happening).



 March 23, 2005

The Honorable Jeb Bush
Governor of Florida
The State House
Tallahassee, FL

Dear Governor Bush,

In 1998, shortly after you were elected Governor, you were kind enough to ask me to prepare some ideas on how your administration might assist Florida's film industry after the debacle of the Florida Entertainment Commission.

I started that position paper by quoting Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  Much has occurred since you took office, and even with the occasional bumps, Florida's film industry has benefited from your stewardship.  Your re-establishment of a state film commissioner's office under the auspices of the Governor's office will remain, at least in my eyes, your crowning achievement.  We've had our disagreements on several policy issues, and on personnel, but you're the Governor, and I'm not, so you get to say and do, and I get to bitch.  But that's okay, given that under the last administration I once had the state police knock on my door for bitching.

Now as you enter your last year as Governor, the state of Florida's film industry appears a little rocky once again.  Several days ago, I wrote to you regarding some of my concerns and objections regarding the current efforts to secure a $10-$20, or even $25 million dollar incentive fund intended to lure various kinds of film and television productions to Florida.   I do not wish to re-address those issues here, and I may, or may not decide to follow up my concerns by actively engaging in the political process as the current legislation makes it way through committees.  Much depends on my schedule and previous commitments.  Although I've only ventured to express my opinion at this point, it seems that some of my colleagues in their zealous efforts to get this legislation passed don't fully understand or appreciate that politics allows for competing points of view.  That's okay too, because, I've been there before.

My concerns today, and the reason for this letter, which I plan to circulate to all of those with an interest or concern in the continued success and growth of our industry are with the current state of the relationship between the unions and non-signatory companies, and with what appears to be a disappointing use of the Florida Film & Entertainment Advisory Council for political patronage appointments, as well as the less than vigorous efforts to deal with this issue that so adversely affects our industry.  First the union problems:


Labor relations have been a contentious issue for the 20 plus years that I've been a part of the film industry, and periodically we find ourselves repeating that famous Yogi Berra quote: "This is like deja vu all over again."

On March 16th, Paul Meena, former head of production at Universal Studios, who now heads a production company in Orlando, wrote a letter that was circulated to some in the industry detailing an incident between an out-of-state producer and at least one of the local film unions that took place on March 13th at Universal Studios in Orlando.   In addition to Meena's letter, there was also a response letter by Paul Sirmons, your film commissioner, who talked with the producer and the union reps that has also been circulated.

In addition to these two versions, I have also spoken to the LA free-lance producer to learn her version of the events.  In short, an out-of-state production company was hired to produce a promo for a television series that originates out of the Universal Studios in Orlando, and the LA free-lance producer who was sent here by that company claims that she was more or less coerced into signing a contract with the unions under duress.

I think it would be accurate to say that the unions took advantage of a stranger in a strange land.  Like boxing however, labor relations require that its your responsibility to protect yourself at all times, and in all fairness, I believe that the LA free-lance producer, like far too many others, put too much faith in the perceived protection of the term, "right-to-work," and not enough in acquiring the information and assistance required for real protection.  If you've been informed that you're going to be in a fight, and the bell rings for the first round, it's too late to cry that its not fair to hit you because you don't have any gloves on.

 At the same time, although I appreciate Paul Sirmons efforts to mediate this situation, I believe that Paul's response contains some excessive, though understandable bureaucratic doublespeak to put the best face on this incident, while perhaps mollifying the unions a bit too much in what appears was yet another example of a continuing game of "gotcha," that the unions have become very adept at.

 Here's what I mean by that, and what I, and many others believe is a central issue that is at the core of much of the labor friction in this state.  Union leaders, instead of being up front and invoking  very clear instructions to their members regarding the requirements that prohibit their members from working for a non-signatory company as well as the punishment that can accrue to a member who violates those prohibitions, engage in periods where they ignore their members working for non-signatory companies, and then periodically undertake an agenda by which their members are encouraged to go out and work for non-signatory companies - including I was told several weeks ago, offering special payment for members who do so and then notify the union hall.

This practice establishes a justification allowing these reps to  visit these film sets - often unannounced and without prior appointment - in order to demand that these non-signatory companies have to sign a contract immediately, because as the union reps claim, the presence of some union members on the crew entitles them "exclusive representation rights."   A failure to accept this claim on the spot results in the union reps threatening that they will invoke the union's prohibition against members working for a non-signatory company, and order their members to walk off the job.

That's the problem!  Although the unions have every right and obligation to enforce the terms of the agreements that they have with their membership, they only attempt to employ this tactic as a condition of trying to force a non-signatory company into a contract.  It's become a collusionary ruse designed to mousetrap non-signatory companies into an almost indefensible corner

The single largest complaint voiced by producers who have been subject to this game is the use of the unannounced visit by union reps. Union reps deny that they do this, but in recent days I've made a very concerted effort to contact the producers of several production companies who claimed that they were the subject of this behavior in South Florida recently, and I was very direct and pointed in questioning them as to whether or not they or their companies were contacted prior to the union reps showing up on their jobs.  I was assured that no such contact had taken place in these instances.  Moreover, in at least one instance, the union reps came onto private property without seeking permission, and the production company had to order them off.

Of course, once these union reps are on the set, the producer is at a decided disadvantage, given that they are expected to "negotiate" a contract without aid or assistance of legal counsel, while at the same time dealing with production issues and problems, clients who are quick to become alarmed over the disruption associated with the  "negotiations," and some members of the crew who as willing co-conspirators in this ruse, stand on the sidelines like a Greek chorus threatening to walk off the set if the producer does not quickly cede to the union's demands and sign a contract.

It is no wonder that producers who have undergone this kind of "negotiation " process often claim that they were "strong armed," "intimidated," and "coerced" into signing a contract.

But in all fairness, the fault often lies as much with producers, as with the union reps. After years of this kind of behavior, too many producers and production companies continue to believe that ignorance is bliss, that the words "right-to-work" are some sort of magic shield, and that the best way to avoid, or evade all of this is to stay stupid, keep quiet, and pray that the unions go and pester someone else.   Few of them, as evidenced by the continued ability of the unions to engage in these tactics at will, have bothered to hire lawyers, or acquaint themselves with the provisions of labor law which could provide them some measure of protection against these kind of tactics.

For out-of-state producers who undergo this kind of experience, they often, as Paul Meena stated in his letter of the LA producer in this latest incident, leave vowing, that they "never want(s) to come back and shoot in Florida again."   And many of them haven't.  Today, no one is obligated to come to Florida - if they ever were - and the choice of world-wide locations that can provide the same "looks" as Florida, with comparable support services and amenities has never been higher.

I believe that there are better ways to deal with these issues.  Here are several suggestions that I think might eliminate some of this friction, if in fact people really want to eliminate the friction, but that's a big, and uncertain if:

First: If the Florida Legislature is inclined to give the film industry tens of millions of dollars in a tax incentive money this year, they should consider developing binding language that would provide protections for any non-signatory companies that apply for these funds against undue or illegal labor tactics.  If Florida is to remain a viable "right-to-work" state, Florida's tax dollars cannot become hostage to labor union machinations.

Second: Producers, heads of production companies and production managers have a responsibility to quit sticking their heads in the sand and make a conscious effort to educate themselves of what rights both labor and management are entitled to under labor law. Those who choose to become signatory companies should do so.  Those who wish to remain non-signatory companies - and Florida law allows for companies to be non-signatory - need to understand and commit to the kinds of business planning and decision making that will allow them to do so.

Third: The unions have to stop unannounced visits to production locations during working hours.  Labor law does not afforded unfettered access by union reps to workers during working hours.  The law does not exclude contact between union reps and their members, but there are federal laws and rules that they are obligated to follow, and producers need to acquaint themselves with those laws and rules, while the union reps who know these laws by heart need to start following them.

Fourth: I think that if the unions really want to demonstrate that they are interested in only dealing off the top of the deck, then they have both a responsibility and an obligation to make a very direct and open declaration to their members that if they want to remain union members they have to abide by the union rules which prohibit them from working for non-signatory companies, as well as the sanctions that the union will impose for a member's failure to honor that agreement.  Do it in the union hall, and not on a film set.  If members choose to violate the union rules by working for a non-signatory company, that is a problem between the union and those members, not between the union and the non-signatory company.

Fifth: The state should start exercising whatever power and jurisdiction it has, even if only as a facilitator in arranging workshops that can provide legal information on "right-to-work" and the protection that the state can provide to aggrieved parties who feel that they have been subjected to unfair practices.

These issues will never completely go away, but a failure to know what one's rights are will only continue to embolden those who would take advantage of them.


The Orlando union problem also resulted in revealing to me that we once again seem to have an advisory board that's become a haven for patronage appointments as well as revealing the failure, or inability of the FFEAC to be an organization capable of providing industry leadership and guidance.  I believe that this is a very serious problem, and it was revealed to me in another portion of Paul Meena's letter where he wrote:

"While so many of us are working so hard trying to get Legislation passed to make a better environment for all, I feel that Labor is single-handedly trying to derail all of our efforts. When I tried to place this item on the last FFEAC agenda, I was asked to take it off so as not to air our "dirty laundry" in a public forum; so I did. As much as I would like to add this to our meeting agenda next week in Tallahassee, again, I will not, for fear as to how Governor and Legislators might react, when we are so very close to getting our revised Bill passed."

Who on this board would object to an open and supposedly frank discussion of such a critical issue impacting on our industry?   What mentality equates dealing with this issue as airing "dirty laundry?" It is evident on its face that once again we seem to have a film and entertainment advisory board incapable of meeting their responsibilities to our industry for fear of dealing with unpleasant or controversial issues, or worse, choosing to forgo a discussion of this issue for fear of jeopardizing the current efforts to get the Legislature to cough up the increasing millions that they believe will "save" this industry. Those invested with a public trust who would move to silence debate for money, do so only because they know that their quest for money can stand neither scrutiny nor debate.

But then, let's look at what the advisory board has become.  Florida statute 288.1552, describes in very specific detail what the criteria should be in selecting individuals for this advisory board:

"When making appointments to the council, the Governor, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall appoint persons who are residents of the state and who are highly knowledgeable of, active in, and recognized leaders in Florida's motion picture, television, video, sound recording, or other entertainment industries."

Well, sad to say, of the currently listed 16 members of this board - excluding the 4 ex-officio members - we have among others:  Leslie Ann Bartlet, a chiropractor, Mark Zubaly, a lobbyist whose clients have nothing to do with either film or entertainment, Rebecca O'Dell Townsend, a partner in a Tampa firm who specializes in appellate and Constitutional Law
, Ann Herberger, President of the Woods Herberger Group, which is listed on various websites as one of the largest Republican political consulting groups in Florida,  and Dr. Lew Klechak  an orthodontist from Jacksonville.

Now I'm sure that these are all fine upstanding people, and I think it's a wonderful thing that they show such public spirit ness and willingness to serve Florida by volunteering to be on a public board.   However, we got real problems here, and none of them involve getting a spinal adjustment, dental work, constitutional appeals or running for public office.

Since the very beginning there has been little or no effort to appoint any significant number of people to this board either by you, the Speaker or the Senate President who really make up the backbone of either the film industry or the music industry, or the electronic gaming industry.

There are any number of qualified, talented, knowledgeable and capable individuals in this state who could, and should be on a board that is supposed to be dealing with our industry.  Instead we have a chiropractor, an orthodontist, a lobbyist for the chamber of commerce, a political consultant, and an appellate lawyer.

I'll bet no Governor, Speaker or Senate President would ever appoint a filmmaker to sit on an industry board dealing with any of these other professions.  So why must we suffer these kinds of appointments?

This is an embarrassment for our industry!  We deserve better!

I'm aware that some of these appointments were not yours to make.  I would none the less ask you, and I am going to ask the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate to commit to making your remaining appointments to this board ones that reflect a recognition that Florida's film and entertainment industries are significant industries that merit the best and most qualified candidates, so that we never again find ourselves in a position where a member of that board, or anyone else in Florida, is asked to refrain from raising issues of critical importance impacting on our industry because the issues represent "dirty laundry."

I remain as always, a believer in the proposition that things never improve by keeping your mouth shut, your eyes closed and fingers in your ears, and I hope, like always that you'll accept this letter in that spirit.


Al Crespo

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