Major Hollywood studios threatened by Teamsters pay dispute

Hollywood’s drivers and the major studios continued last-ditch contract talks late Friday in an effort to avoid a head-on collision.

The local Teamsters branch, which represents drivers who haul equipment to film sets, has been negotiating for a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains on behalf of the major studios.

But a major stumbling block has been a dispute over pay rates for more than 3,000 Teamsters drivers. Barring a last-minute compromise, union leaders are expected to seek a strike authorization vote from members Sunday. Crafts workers including electricians and laborers also are participating in the negotiations.

If members of Local 399 grant a strike authorization — often sought by union leaders to gain bargaining leverage — a walkout could occur as early as Aug. 1, when the current three-year contract expires.

Although the union could still opt to work without a contract, both sides appear dug in for a showdown. Teamsters last struck in Hollywood in 1988, staging a 24-day walkout over pay cuts and changes in overtime rules.

Should the Teamsters strike again, it would mark the latest labor unrest that has roiled Hollywood in the last few years. Writers staged a 100-day walkout in 2007-08 that shut down scripted television production. The Screen Actors Guild subsequently waged a yearlong standoff with the studios that disrupted feature film production.

Unlike those union negotiations, which were complicated by how writers and actors should be compensated in the digital age, the drivers are primarily seeking higher pay in basic wages.

A strike by the Teamsters, which represents drivers in 13 Western states, would not shut down production, but would cause significant disruptions to films and TV shows that depend on drivers to deliver production equipment and stars to sets on studio lots and on-location filming sites.

Hardest hit would be Los Angeles, just as the region has begun rebounding from a severe slump caused by the recession and the exodus of movies and TV shows from California.

Studios have drawn up contingency plans to film more on their lots, shift production to Canada and hire replacement drivers. Teamster drivers, however, could still disrupt productions by picketing film sites. A walkout is likely to draw support from the national union, which could encourage other Teamster locals to honor picket lines, thus affecting on-location filming around the country.

The chief roadblock in the current dispute is the size of a proposed pay hike.

The studios have offered a 2% bump annually in pay, along with increases in contributions to the union’s health plan. They’ve also agreed to a request from the Teamsters for a two-year contract term, so the union could line up its next round of negotiations with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, giving them more say in bargaining.

The Teamsters, however, are insisting on a 3% annual pay increase, the same as what IATSE won in its last negotiation. The union cites the management-favored practice of “pattern bargaining,” in which contract terms negotiated by one union become the template for other unions.

Studios counter that pay terms for IATSE, which represents technical crews, were negotiated in spring 2008, before the recession clobbered their DVD sales and advertising revenue. What’s more, they note that several other unions, including the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, had accepted 2% annual raises in recent agreements.