Unions Fight Over Video Jobs : Plan to Retrain Film Editors in New Technology Snags

Times Staff Writer

At a time when unions and employers talk a lot about retraining workers to cope with new technologies, a dispute between two local movie unions has cut short what was promoted by its supporters as an ideal example of such programs.

The state-funded project, part of which was to be conducted at Valley College in Van Nuys, was designed to teach 300 film editors to handle technology involving videotape that is rapidly replacing 35-millimeter film, particularly in television production. The program was to be the state's first such project in the entertainment industry.

Program Never Been

But the $653,942 program never began. Instead, the planning of it prompted a bitter legal battle and opened new wounds in the conflict between two union locals over which one should get the jobs created by the ascendant videotape technology, which producers say saves time and money.

Local 776 of the Motion Picture and Videotape Editors Guild is the Hollywood-based, 2,600-member local that applied to the state Employment Training Panel for the retraining funds last year. The application was opposed by Local 695 of the International Sound Technicians, Cinetechnicians and Television Engineers of the Motion Picture and Television Industries, a 2,800-member local based in Studio City.

The sound technicians say 700 of its members do videotape editing and that the editors are trying to learn new skills to push members of Local 695 out of jobs.

The dispute has prompted the locals to file suits against each other in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Along with their many charges and countercharges, the suits seek an answer to the question of which local can rightfully represent videotape technicians.

Squabbles among Hollywood unions are nothing new. But this fight, say some people close to it, illustrates the confusion that can arise when changes in technology make outdated the longstanding jurisdictional lines among unions.

Alters Definition

Videotape technology, by emphasizing the role of technicians and engineers, is altering the definition of which worker in the production process can claim the label of editor.

As a result, the editors, the people who cut and splice film, say their livelihoods are threatened.

The editors have traditionally represented the people who took 35-millimeter film after it had been developed and did the painstaking work of deleting, adding and combining footage. "It is a kind of creative art," said one official with the editors guild.

The members of the sound technicians union have generally been involved with the mechanical challenges of electronic recording, operating taping equipment at record companies and film and television studios.

"We always called ourselves engineers or technicians," said Jim Osburn, the local's executive director. "But there has always been an element of editing in what we've done."

The problem, say the sound technicians, is that videotape has changed things so that "editing" in the traditional sense of cutting and splicing is required less and less.

Electronically Formed Images

Videotape is a magnetic tape on which images are immediately formed electronically. No developing is required. Technicians use computerized equipment to "mix" footage on a master tape, creating a first version of the work that is already on the way to being "edited."

The story of the conflict between the two locals begins in the fall of 1983, when the editor's local began planning the project with the Los Angeles Business Labor Council and the Los Angeles Community College District. The business labor council is a nonprofit organization that brings employers, unions and government together for programs.

The training was to include three hours a day for 16 days at both Valley College and at the editors' Hollywood headquarters. There would also be 40 hours of paid, on-site training with various studios. Valley College was chosen as one of the sites largely to accomodate members of the editors' union living in the Valley, according to Ron Kutak, executive director of the editors guild.

In January, 1984, just before the decisive meeting of a state panel that was to give final approval to the funds, the sound technicians' union complained that it was the legal agent for videotape editors and that the retraining program would cost its members jobs. The business labor council withdrew the application it had submitted after the sound technicians objected.

Charge of Sabotage

In May, the editors' local sued the sound technicians, charging that the technicians sabotaged the program and asking the court for $2,653,942--$653,942 for the lost funding and $2 million in damages.

The sound technicians filed a countersuit. It asks "at least" $2 million in damages and alleges that the editors overlooked an agreement put together in 1973 by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The agreement, according to the countersuit, says the sound technicians represents videotape editors.

Both locals are part of the international alliance, which comprises 24 entertainment-industry locals. The countersuit also names the alliance and alleges that the international failed to enforce the agreement.

Aside from a brief interview, officials with the editors and their attorneys have refused to comment extensively about the case. Walter Diehl, president of the international alliance, could not be reached for comment. But, in a letter, he has told the head of the Los Angeles Business Labor Council that the editors' union represents videotape editors.

'Real Culture Shock'

"The reason I got involved is that I thought it was a really progressive thing to do for the industry," said Kutak of the editors' local. "Here are our people, who are used to holding that 35-millimeter film negative in their hand one minute and the next minute they're editing on a computer. For some folks, that can be a real culture shock."

But, according to court documents, on Jan. 30, 1984, officials with the sound technicians issued a report to their members saying the retraining program was "additional proof of the efforts of the editors' representatives, the producers and international president to destroy your jobs."

"I'm very hopeful that the conflict can be resolved because I think that this project can be very helpful to the entertainment industry," said Lance Brisson, the business labor council's executive director.

Brisson, who believes the money will still be available if the dispute is resolved, said he withdrew the application only because he did not want to put the council in the middle of a fight between two locals.

"How can can I say which one is right?" he asked. "You can't do a successful project in an environment of conflict."

Political Influence Charges

Besides the lawsuits, there are charges that the sound technicians attempted to use political influence to discourage the retraining program's establishment.

The name most often mentioned in connection with the charge is that of Roy Brewer, a consultant with the sound technicians. Brewer was once the most prominent local union officials as the Hollywood representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and made headlines as a hunter of "communists" in the film industry. The 75-year-old Tarzana resident is, in his words, a "close friend" of President Reagan from the President's days in Hollywood. On Jan. 11, 1984, Reagan named Brewer chairman of the Federal Services Impasses Panel, which is the ultimate arbiter of bargaining disputes between federal labor unions and government employers.

Additionally, Gov. George Deukmejian, whom Brewer calls "someone I know," appointed him on Jan. 24, 1984, as a member of the state's Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board.

(There is no federal law against Brewer's having the impasse panel position and holding his consulting job with the sound technicians, according to Henry Frazier, the acting chairman of the Federal Labor Relations Authority, with which the panel is affiliated. And Steve Jablonsky, executive officer for the OSHA board to which Brewer was appointed by the governor, said ties to labor or management are a legal requirement for four of the board's seven members).

Brewer at Meeting

About a year ago, Brewer sat in on a meeting with state officials and officials of the business labor council at which Osburn voiced objections to the retraining program. During the meeting, one of those present said Osburn "utilized everything that was in his power to use, including the threat of having Brewer do what he could do politically. The governor's name certainly entered into it."

"I remember threats and discussions about the governor's office," said another person who was present but asked not to be identified. "But I don't remember if they were made by Brewer or Osburn."

Brewer vehemently denies that threats were made or influence was used.

"There are people who are politically opposed to me and they're just blowing this whole thing up," said Brewer. "The whole episode is really very insignificant."

Brewer said he never used influence or threatened to. Osburn said he never threatened to use political influence in the meeting. But he said he did once tell members that he felt strongly enough about the issue to send Brewer to Sacramento to oppose the program. Brewer never did any lobbying on the subject, Osburn said.

"I was mad because they were using public monies to favor one union over another," said Osburn, describing the meeting with state officials.

Outside Influence Denied

Both Brisson and Steve Duscha, executive director of the Employment Training Panel in Sacramento, said no outside influence was brought to bear on them or affected their decision to set the program aside.

"I don't think we've heard anything from the governor and I'm not aware of any outside pressure regarding this," Duscha said.

But later, Duscha recalled, "There were second-hand references that somebody involved with the dispute had influence with the governor. They were made to a member of the panel, Elinor Glenn, and she related that to me."

Glenn could not be reached for comment.

As the unions' legal fight moves toward a projected October court date, Brisson and others who thought the idea of retraining editors was a good one seem somewhat stunned by the unexpected complexity of what is happening beneath the application's surface.

Duscha said the panel will consider future requests for retraining funds for the entertainment industry. "We'll just be more careful," he said.

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