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'No Strike' protest draws small turnout

December 18, 2008 |  9:50 pm

Call it the protest that wasn't.

For months, Hollywood's below-the-line workers have been stewing about the prospect of another industry walkout. Crew members were hit hard during the 100-day writers strike, which shut down most film and TV production. Then came the fallout from a so-called de facto strike caused by uncertainty in contract talks between the studios and the Screen Actors Guild. Studios rushed to wrap their 2009 movies by June 30, before the actors contract expired, causing a steep falloff in production for the remainder of the year.

So it was no surprise that some location scouts, grips, electricians and others opted to protest a "town hall" meeting in Hollywood on Wednesday night held by the Screen Actors Guild. The workers, carrying signs saying "Please No Strike Now-The Crew," contended that an actors walkout would be devastating to below-the-line crew members, coming in the teeth of a historic recession.

Even so, the gathering drew only about a dozen protesters, barely a trickle given the roughly 30,000 crew members who work in the Los Angeles region.

Blame the foul weather and Hollywood union politics. 

The rally was not endorsed by either of the two major unions representing Hollywood's blue-collar workers. Teamsters Local 399, which strongly supported the writers during their walkout, prides itself on showing solidarity with other unions. And the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has been critical of SAG leadership in the past, has been uncharacteristically quiet this time. The IA is facing its own internal challenges, including persuading its members to support a recently negotiated contract that includes unpopular cuts in health insurance benefits.

Tom Lackey, one of the protesters, acknowledged that last-minute planning might have caused the low turnout Wednesday night but said the picketers made their point. "We respect their right to strike; we just think it's a bad time,'' said Lackey, a veteran location scout who has worked on such movies as "Twilight" and "Anger Management."  "The economy is in horrible shape. Everybody is losing their houses. We feel that if they strike now, there would be too much blood left on the table."

That argument has been made by many within SAG, including during a raucous meeting in New York on Monday night, in which many members accused SAG leaders of mishandling negotiations. SAG President Alan Rosenberg faced a much warmer crowd Wednesday, when about 600 SAG members crowded into a ballroom at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.

Among them was Robert Schneider, who drew a standing ovation during a speech in which he suggested Tom Hanks and George Clooney didn't understand the studios' final contract offer. Representatives of Clooney and Hanks declined to comment. The "A-Listers," as they're called, were among more than 130 high-profile actors this week who signed a letter opposing the strike authorization vote, expected to begin Jan. 2.

But "Titanic" actress Frances Fisher, a member of the guild's negotiating committee, says there are no plans to scrap the referendum. "If we get a good deal,'' she said," that's going to help our brothers and sisters in the other unions."

-- Richard Verrier