On her cellphone, inside her car, taking a break from walking the picket line in the midday Georgia heat with her union brothers and sisters (with literal bells on her shoes to make good trouble), IATSE Local 600 Central Region Business Representative Heather Burgett-Svanevik is the personification of union solidarity, grit, and savvy.
Her mission today is to see and be seen – and in this case, be heard – at one of the film production sites not on this month’s regional Production List. As a non-union project, the production did not submit its Project Information Sheet, which every film and television production typically sends in to IATSE that lists their budget, distribution platform, and shoot dates. Crew reported this non-union production to IATSE in the hope of getting a contract and gaining their benefit contributions, which is required to qualify for health and pension coverage.
Heather Burgett-Svanevik (second from the left) with fellow IATSE and Teamster reps picking an Atlanta-based production earlier this year.
Burgett-Svanevik, like all Local 600 business representatives, is a front-line ambassador. Her role is a balancing act between short-term activist and long-term advocate – meeting with (and occasionally confronting) producers and UPMs to ensure they are adhering to contractual obligations and connecting with Local 600 crew (and non-union crew) to make certain they know they have someone nearby who is committed to protecting their rights, ensuring their safety, and immediately resolving any on-set issues.
“You have to make sure you’re in front of the crew, because once they get to know you, they’re going to be more willing to call you if there’s an issue,” Burgett-Svanevik said. “It’s about building trust, relationships, and having an opportunity to sit and hear what the issues are. A lot of times, our members will say, ‘Oh, I have a question about this’ and then all of these other questions they’ve been thinking about come up, and now you’re in front of them to answer them.”
Today, Burgett-Svanevik is in full activist mode – Day Nine on the picket line in front of a film set where the producer has refused to respond to IATSE’s Demand of Recognition Letter asking management to voluntarily recognize the union – and instead replaced its entire union crew with non-union members (telling new hires a misleading story that the original union crew members had left to work on a different show).
“When these productions are replacing (union) crew, they’re replacing them with sometimes younger crew who aren’t necessarily thinking about pension or healthcare,” Burgett-Svanevik said. “Now, this new crew – the people who crossed our picket line – are coming up to us asking, ‘What’s really going on?’ and we’ve been educating them. We tell them this isn’t just for the people who walked off (this production). This is for every single production here on out. The concept is: everybody should have healthcare; everybody should have the right to benefits. Why should there be disparate treatment? So, education has been huge.”
After talking with Burgett-Svanevik and some of supportive non-union crew, several new crew members have walked off this production. Others have refused to show up to work after learning about the producer’s anti-union tactics. She has no illusions the collective efforts of the affiliated local unions along with Local 600 will halt production completely, but she has no plans to untie her bells anytime soon.
“Not every organizing effort is going to come to fruition,” Burgett -Svanevik said. “We need to stand together, stand strong, and keep demanding.”
Battling Disinformation and Intimidation
Fortunately, most Local 600 relationships with production companies are more educational than confrontational and do not require resorting to picketing to reach a resolution. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a menu of other key issues – safety, pay, hours, health, and pension benefits – that Local 600 business representatives are always enforcing.
One of these issues most prevalent in Local 600’s Central Region is members’ rights in states that have recently passed Right to Work laws aimed at weakening union influence, which have spawned a mess of misinformation and member confusion.
For Local 600 Central Region Business Representative Jack Nealy, whose territory over the last 16 years includes Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas – all states that have recently enacted these Right to Work laws – the anxiety and uncertainty among 600 members there is palpable, and the panacea is education and awareness.
“Members will go, ‘I thought this was a Right to Work state’ and sometimes think we can’t enforce our contract. No, we can enforce our contract in Right to Work states, and we can flip non-union shows to union,” Nealy said. “Right to Work laws do not address those issues at all. By federal law, employees have a right to organize or request union representation.”
Cross-Union Collaboration is Key to Overcoming Misinformation
In Chicago, Local 600 Business Representative Ashurina Atto said collaboration between various IATSE chapters has been critical in her day-to-day efforts to protect brothers’ and sisters’ on-set.
“We work really well with other IA locals here to build a greater connection with our members so they know that we’re here to not take them off a job or trying to stop them from working but just help them in any way we can to get them benefits or a wage increase,” Atto said. “Here in Chicago, it’s a collaborative effort.”
On Friday March 3, Local 600 Business Rep Ashurina Atto (second from the left) sat on a panel attended by over 140 students that focused on the process of joining the union, working in Chicago and how to get started in the film & television industry. Other panelists included Local 769 President Jennifer Jobst, Local 476 Training Coordinator Jim Hartnett Jr., and Keslow Camera General Manager Colette Gabriel.
Nealy agreed: “The message we’re out there delivering to membership is, ‘You’re not just doing this for yourself; you’re also doing it for the people you work with.’ Once that clicks, it’s like a light bulb going off. You can see it in their eyes. When you have a strong crew that sticks together, you’ll almost always be successful.”
That collaboration and communication cuts both ways between Local 600 members and IATSE national and local chapter leaders – especially among members who worry about retaliation from producers if they speak out about unsafe or unfair working conditions, and other members who fear losing a steady paycheck when work is slow.
Anonymity: A Sacred 600 Covenant
Nealy stressed anonymity is a sacred covenant held among business representatives.
“It’s important crew members know we’re here and that if they call us about an issue we’ll protect their anonymity, that we’re going to address their issue without identifying anyone, and we’re going to do it in a cordial and professional manner,” Nealy said. “Any communication members have with business reps is strictly confidential. We do not disclose – sometimes to each other – who we’re talking to.”
Jack Nealy (left) with Local 600 members in New Orleans during a 2019 Regional Membership Meeting.
IATSE Local 600 Central Region Director Theresa Khouri said in slow periods the message of union solidarity is especially critical, but she recognizes convincing members of just how foundational the union’s value is can be more difficult.
“We feel a heavier burden than we have in the past with the current state of our economy. Our members want to provide for their families, want to pay their bills. You understand that burden, but we also need to protect what we have worked for so many years to gain for our members – most importantly protecting their wages, working conditions and health and pension benefits,” Khouri said. “There’s a fine balance we have to manage. We need to provide members with the resources they need and be advocates for their safety. When we know we can be successful on an organizing drive, we’re going to go in with the other affiliated locals with the expectation of providing the crew an agreement that provides them fair wages, safe working conditions and the pension and health benefits they deserve.
Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Burgett-Svanevik is starting the car. She received a phone call from a crew member the night before that the production Local 600 is picketing had moved a generator off site and would need it for today’s shoot.
“As soon as we know where they’re at I’ll be there helping out picketing four or five hours,” Burgett-Svanevik said. “They keep moving around, but it’s a small town. We’re going to find them sooner or later. We’re like a little hive of bees chasing after them. It’s been fun.”