A Movie Electrician Responds to Katha

Tom Lehman TLEHMAN at lor.net
Mon Nov 15 17:54:37 PST 1999

Tom, thanks for an opportunity to respond to the critics of working people in my industry. I can't begin to tell you how hard these stereotypes are to kill. I believe these notions flow from a mentality of total surrender to the entertainment industry. There's an illusion that film workers are rich, that our jobs are glamorous, and all we do is sit around on apple boxes all day counting our overtime. Since Michael Eisner earns a half billion in a year, it must be true, huh? Traditionally our craft has lived in the shadows of the movie stars and the Hollywood hype, which 99% of Americans naively buy without question.

The other day when I was on a picketline with other unionists protesting free trade policies, a well-meaning liberal approached me and said how encouraging it was too see white-collar workers on the picket line too. We are NOT white collar workers. Our collars are union-blue. We swing hammers for a living, lay cable, load and unload tons of equipment, operate heavy machinery, drive 40 footer tractor trailers, dig ditches, and do all the hard work other working people do. The only difference is our job security amounts to the first 8 hours of the work day, we generally earn less per hour than the same trade in other industries, and our working conditions are among the worst in the world. We are probably the only group of workers in the world fighting (still without success) for a 14 hour work day. We work a minimum of six hours straight with no breaks and a work day can run up to 24 hours with a nine hour turnaround to get back for another long shift, and sometimes we die on the freeways trying to get home. How many of the millions who saw 'Pleasantville' know that IATSE brother Brent Hershman fell asleep and died on the freeway after a 20 hour work day, trying to get home to see his daughters before grabbing a few hours of sleep?

The scale wages in my local for a skilled lighting electrician, which takes years of informal apprenticeship to learn is $26, but we're lucky to get it. Newer concessionary contracts in the wake of the Canadian runaways have dropped down to $12.50 an hour, which doesn't go far in a city like LA.

Yes, IATSE systematically excluded women and racial minorities, and made it tough for non-relatives to be admitted. I could add that our union was once owned by the Chicago mob, and that it was a driving force of the Hollywood Blacklist. In fact up to a thousand backlot workers (along with the heart and soul of democratic unionism) were driven from the backlots in the 1940's by IATSE.

To condemn our workers for the actions of our union is to condemn all workers everywhere, because with the exception of the handful of left-led unions, what union wasn't guilty of exclusionism and blacklisting?

I don't know what our demographic figures are. Less than 5% of our electricians are women. We wish there were more, but this job requires you to be able to lift a hundred pound piece of cable off the ground and throw it in a truck -- to do it in snow, rain, or 110 degree heat, sometimes on very little sleep, without days off, or regular meal breaks. Our members come from all over the US and the world. We have many Latinos and Asians, not so many African Americans. Entry into the locals has been formalized to the point where most new members are NOT relatives. Our camera local is wide open, and anyone with a small amount of experience and a hefty initiation fee can gain entrance.

Please don't fall for the Hollywood hype that wants you to believe this is a happy kingdom of sunglasses and limousines where all the workers drive Mercedes. We're the working class and we always have been.

I hope this helps in clearing up anti-worker stereotypes about the Hollywood working class.

An honest answer from a movie electrician,

Tom Lehman

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