When the producers of the action film Sympathy for the Devil decided to transfer their production from Atlanta to the Las Vegas area, they figured they might get around pesky annoyances like having to pay their crew members union wages and contribute to their health benefits and pensions. Nevada is a right-to-work state.
But thanks to the determination and solidarity between the crew, Local 600, Local 720 and the International, those producers were mistaken. Following productive negotiations, buy-in and a nearly four-hour picket by the crew, the Sympathy producers ultimately agreed to a contract that will cover 41 crew members including four Local 600 members.
“We heard that this was going to be a union project, but when they moved it to Las Vegas, they decided to go non-union,” said Local 600 Western Region Business Representative Ryan Sullivan. “That’s a giant slap in the face to the entire union crew there, and they knew that. You’re already paying health and pension benefits to your actors and directors, but now you just don’t feel like we are worth it? That’s not right.”
“We just organized a low budget film with a budget of maybe $750,000 for the same length – a 20-day shoot,” Sullivan continued. “Sympathy had a $6.4 million budget and they put up such a fight. They have their reasons, but none of them were valid in our eyes.”
The film will star Nicolas Cage and Joel Kinnaman. Practically from the start of production on July 25, word began to filter in that multiple IATSE members were working non-union on the project and that, given the size and scope of the production, the crew might be willing to flip it. The job was called in to IATSE and reps from IATSE, 720 and 600 were sent out to assist the crew.
When he arrived on August 2, Sullivan worked with representatives from Local 720, a mixed local that represents approximately 1,700 below-the-line crew members who are based in Nevada. IATSE representative Jamie Fry reached out to the production company with little or no success. The producers gave vague assurances that they would “do our next film union” “which is something we hear all the time,” said Sullivan.
The following day, as the production was shooting outside at an abandoned casino in Henderson, Nevada, the reps called a crew meeting in a nearby dirt lot during the evening lunch break. The crew was informed that IATSE had attempted to negotiate with producers without success and that if they wanted to flip the production, they would need to take definitive action. The crew agreed to finish the day’s shoot and, if there was no contract in place by call time the following day, August 4, the crew would walk.
“All the reps received calls around 3 am,” said Sullivan. “Production basically got everyone together – not the actors, just the crew – and made their spiel about why they can’t go union, why they chose Nevada and how they hope to do all this stuff in Nevada. They left out the fact that it’s a SAG union project and a DGA union project. It’s just not an IATSE union project.”
On August 4, by call time and with no contract in place, the crew of Sympathy for the Devil made good on its threat. Sullivan met up with a full contingent from Local 720 including Business Reps Apple Thorne and Mike Reininger, President Phil Jaynes, Secretary-Treasurer Ron Poveromo, the local’s attorney and several office staff.
Gradually they were joined by the majority of the crew who picked up signs and walked the picket line. While there were crew members who were justifiably nervous about what this action could lead to – including possible threats to their jobs – it did not disrupt the momentum to pressure the producers into doing the right thing.
“Usually there is hesitation when a picket line starts,” said Sullivan. “What was amazing here was how fast the entire crew got involved with it. For this one, every single person grabbed a sign and started pacing back and forth on this really long sidewalk. At one point, I don’t think we had enough signs.”
From Local 720’s perspective, the event was historic. The local had not participated in a strike since 1984. Younger crew members, although nervous at participating in their first walk-out, took strength from Local 600 crew members who assured them that things would turn out OK.
“We have the tools here, but we’re not used to putting them into action,” said Thorne. “Our members were ready to go, but they were terrified, thinking, ‘what’s going to happen here? Am I going to lose this?’ I give a lot of credit to the Local 600 members who said, ‘No, this is my career. I’m not worried about this shoot. There will be others out there.’ I think that helped bolster the members who were worried.”
The producers came back with several offers, one of which was ultimately accepted. Among other provisions, the crew got health benefits and pension contributions from the start of shooting, no loss of jobs and bringing everyone up to earning at least scale wages.
The crew accepted the proposal.
“They decided, ‘Yes, this works,’” said Sullivan. “Then the DP gave a speech and said, ‘Let’s show them how union workers work.”