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SAG Storm Over Business Reps

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The Screen Actors Guild's business representatives in Los Angeles, complaining of hostile supervision and skimpy paychecks, reportedly are looking to organize through the Teamsters.

In New York, Teamsters Local 210 already represents SAG/NY's more than 20 business reps, along with clerical workers. But some SAG/NY members are complaining that business reps drag their heels in representing or protecting actors.

One major complaint involves shooting of the feature film "Zoolander"—a Paramount picture starring and directed by Ben Stiller—at a former chemical plant in Queens where SAG actors voiced serious concerns of hazardous violations to the guild business rep. The rep allegedly ignored them. SAG/NY's board of directors has ordered staff to prepare a report on the conditions on the "Zoolander" set and the business rep's actions. That report is scheduled to come to the board at its Feb. 5 meeting, according to SAG/NY President Lisa Scarola.

" 'Zoolander' was a disaster," Michael Carbonella, SAG/NY's treasurer—who worked as an actor on the film—told Back Stage on Monday. "There were hazards everywhere. Wires weren't taped down, and you could see the asbestos in the air. They actually gave actors masks to wear," evidently to protect them from possible breathing of asbestos.

But a spokesperson for Paramount's corporate publicity department denied the asbestos claim. "As a matter of course when we go into a location, we have an environmental company test it," the spokesperson said. "AAF Environmental Inc.—we use them frequently on the East Coast—did various tests for lead, asbestos, and so forth. It was found safe and cleared for use."

The masks were used to protect the actors from breathing in the dust, the spokesperson indicated.

Star-director Stiller's publicist also called Back Stage to affirm the precautionary treatment taken at the warehouse, acknowledging that Stiller is a SAG member, and was concerned that the shooting environment be safe.

Carbonella also said the warehouse floor contained "many holes, big enough for a leg easily to step through all the way. If the holes had been big enough for a body to fall through, you'd have fallen 30 or 40 feet. They had us going down rusty stairs with no lighting, so we actually used a human chain to lead each other down."

The Paramount spokesperson said at press time that she had no knowledge of the holes, stairs, or lighting, but would check on it.

Carbonella said that, when the SAG rep came on the set, several actors complained about the conditions. He, as a local SAG officer, stepped up to the rep. "I said, 'You've got to check out these hazardous violations. We deserve hazardous pay.' And he turned to me and said, 'What violations?' "

Business reps are sometimes reluctant to confront producers about complaints, Carbonella noted, because "the reps are sometimes caught between a rock and a hard place," i.e. actors may complain about small problems not included under the film contract.

But Scarola, who has been at odds with SAG/NY senior staff since before her election as president in November '99, was not as forgiving as Carbonella. She believes the business rep's attitude is a result of senior staff's coddling producers. She told Back Stage that one complaining actor on "Zoolander" told her the SAG rep had replied that, if the actor didn't like the conditions on the set, he shouldn't have taken the job.

"John Sucke is telling his reps to say if you don't like the way producers treat you, you shouldn't take the job," Scarola complained. She added that Sucke had used similar words recently in his office when responding to Scarola and another actor who were there to complain about another contract issue.

A Sucke Defender

In his ongoing battle with Scarola, Sucke has stopped returning calls when queried about her complaints. So Back Stage instead went to Eileen Henry, SAG/NY's first vice president, a Sucke supporter.

"Of course senior staff has not given orders to not challenge producers," Henry responded. "That's a simplistic attitude. I don't profess to be a spokeswoman for SAG…but I did some investigating on the 'Zoolander' issue, and here's what I found out:

"They were shooting in an abandoned building," Henry continued. "I don't know if there was actually asbestos there, but they were shooting on the second floor, and actors had to walk through areas full of dust and horrible things. At SAG's request, they covered the floor and made the environment more workable than it was."

Henry said that SAG "checks out each case on its own, and each is taken on an individual basis."

She recalled that the TV series "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" was shooting "down in the subway, and someone raised a question about air quality." Due to repeated complaints, an air-quality tester, on SAG's behalf, checked the air "several times. Each time it met OSHA standards."

OSHA is the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Its mandate is to establish and enforce protective standards for the workplace.

"Here's the problem," Henry observed, "OSHA determines the levels of safety, so SAG has no leg to stand on, and can't assume liability for closing down a production if it's within the government-determined level of safety zone. You can argue that the government level is too low, but the problem's with the government."

Henry also stressed that, under the SAG film-production contract with producers, "actors get advanced notice of hazards. Now, that doesn't happen as many times as it should, whether it's TV, theatrical, or commercial. And if it doesn't, the actor is permitted to leave with pay if he feels his health is being jeopardized."

Henry was asked if some actors might be afraid that, by complaining and walking off the set, the producer could note that and never use the actor again.

She replied, "Why in God's name are you jeopardizing your health for any reason, when life is too short anyway? And why would you want to work with that producer again? Frankly, that's kind of how I do it in my career. Certainly the actor's gut reaction is 'I'll never work with him again.' But do you want to, when it's your life?"

Carbonella said it was his understanding that the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) had requested that "some environmentalists come in and do a report" on the hazards at the "Zoolander" shoot. Back Stage called IATSE, but could garner no information on such a report by press time.

To that point, the Paramount spokesperson said, "Some scenic artists had written to their local a relatively accusatory letter" about the warehouse. "The local sent some people there. They didn't do scientific testing, but did some observation. So then we had OSHA come out and they cleared it."

L.A. Story

Meanwhile, at SAG/LA, some 50 guild business reps are upset by "harassment…left and right by supervisors and by human resources," an unnamed rep told The Hollywood Reporter.

"It's a hostile work environment," THR quoted another staffer as saying. "It's bad—supervisors cursing at employees, throwing books and chairs. It's chaos as far as the staff is concerned."

Another rep told THR that staff must write a letter if one has a complaint against a supervisor. But, if that occurs, "they ignore you and suspend you for two weeks for asking for help."

A Teamsters spokesman reported that their union had met with SAG officials, and the Teamsters have filed a petition to represent the business reps with the National Labor Relations Board.

SAG spokesman Greg Krizman claimed no knowledge of the alleged disagreements between business reps and supervisors. He said SAG would be willing to negotiate a contract with the Teamsters if the reps choose that union to represent them.

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