When rock star Bono and members of his band U2 recently showed up at the Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg, Canada, they were greeted not with cheers but jeers from more than 80 members of one of Hollywood’s most powerful unions.
Their beef: U2’s decision to hire a nonunion crew to film a documentary of the show that the band had come to finish shooting. “This is nothing short of union-busting,” declared Matt Loeb, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Taking on the world’s most famous rock group was just the latest example of Loeb’s willingness to thrust the typically low-key union into high-profile skirmishes on behalf of the nearly 120,000 stage hands, camera operators, grips, costume designers and others who work behind the scenes on scores of movies and TV shows.
The IA, as it is known, in November waged its first high-profile strike in Los Angeles in nearly two decades, in a highly publicized showdown with the producers of the hit reality TV show “The Biggest Loser.”
Unlike other Hollywood unions such as the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, the IA has traditionally avoided public confrontations with employers. It was an approach espoused by the union’s longtime former leader Tom Short, who placed a premium on maintaining smooth relations with the studios and keeping labor peace — even if it meant occasionally calling out other guild leaders for their tactics or militant rhetoric.
But since taking over from Short nearly three years ago, Loeb has put the IA on a more aggressive course, shaking things up inside the entertainment industry’s largest union. In one of his first interviews as president, Loeb spoke to The Times about the recent strike, as well as a controversial and ambitious plan to extend union contracts to visual-effects workers and his efforts to create a more open culture inside a labor organization that dates to 1886.
“I want the IA to have the highest profile it can have and be as strong as it can be,” he said. “Having a solid membership that understands why the union is there and what it does for them is key.”
Loeb, 46, grew up in Cleveland and got his start in the entertainment industry in 1988 in New York, where he worked for a local painters union, cleaning up sets and handling timecards.
He soon became the de facto shop steward and quickly rose through the ranks of the IA, heading its East Council and the union’s first movie and TV division. When Short abruptly resigned in July 2008 after 14 years on the job, the IA’s executive board tapped Loeb to succeed him.
Loeb is reluctant to draw comparisons with his predecessor, saying he prefers to focus on the future. But his style is clearly different from that of Short, who was credited for unifying a formerly fractious collection of local unions and increasing the IA’s ranks while also clashing with dissidents who chafed at his mercurial management style.
“I want to be approachable,” Loeb said. “I want people to feel like they can bring a good idea or a bad idea or disagree with me. I believe if I’m not getting input, I’ve lost something and I don’t have the tools that I need to lead.”
Short could not be reached for comment.
As part of Loeb’s outreach, the IA has hired a research firm to survey the views of union members on the union’s health and pension plans and will hold a series of “town meetings” in the next year to discuss the state of the healthcare industry and what changes they would like to see.
It’s part of an effort to rally the dozens of local guilds that fall under the IA’s umbrella to be more involved in negotiations to replace the current contract, which expires in July 2012.
“He wants to hear directly what members have to say, and that’s new,” said Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, which is part of the IA.
Loeb also has been trying to improve relations with other unions, especially the Teamsters, which represents location managers and casting directors. The two unions have a long history of friction, clashing over turf. Last year, Loeb reached out to Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa, son of the late Teamsters boss.
“I said we ought to be helping each other and building strength by standing together,” Loeb said. Hoffa agreed and the two men signed a so-called mutual assistance pact to work together.
Loeb said that at a time when many unions are losing membership, one of his chief priorities is to expand the IA’s base. That’s one reason the IA threw its resources behind the two-week strike against the NBC series “The Biggest Loser,” which allowed 50 crew members to count their hours toward their health insurance benefits.
“I was trying to make the point that reality TV wasn’t going to be ignored by us,” Loeb said of the strike. “It bolstered the notion that there are things worth fighting for and that we would pull the trigger.”
More daunting is a campaign the IA has launched to bring union contracts to visual-effects artists. Historically, makeup artists and other special-effects craftspeople were covered under union contracts. But most computer graphics artists today work as freelancers and don’t have health insurance benefits and other union protections. “They are the only trade that works on a movie that is not represented,” Loeb said. “That’s astounding to me.”
The union has dedicated a full-time organizer to meet with workers, but Loeb acknowledges the effort has met with some resistance on the part of employers, especially in California, where many companies are struggling to compete with low-cost labor and tax incentives offered by foreign rivals.
Dan Schmit, owner of L.A. effects house Engine Room, said he sympathized with the goal of unionizing workers at major studios but said it would hurt small boutique firms like his that rely mainly on independent contractors. “My hands would be tied in terms of my ability to negotiate for bids,” said Schmit, who already offers health benefits to most of his 10 employees.
Still, Loeb also stresses common ground with employers in such areas as fighting piracy. The IA has a full-time lobbyist in Washington dedicated to supporting anti-piracy legislation, and Loeb has frequently spoken out against the damage piracy inflicts on residuals.
“The idea is to keep the industry healthy and keep our people working,” Loeb said. “That’s my job, that’s the CEOs’ job. It’s not necessarily a contradictory relationship.”