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Does #MeToo Matter in the Teamsters? Trucker Sisters Take on “Boys Club”

Brita McCollough and Brenda Ryan say that speaking out got them blacklisted from the local’s internal job board, wiretapped and even successfully prosecuted in the union's court system for harassing union officials: "The men look after one another and the women are an afterthought, second-class citizens"

If #MeToo is supposed to be a broad, all-inclusive movement, it seems no one told the truckers. So far, the spotlight on sexual harassment and discrimination in Hollywood, often subtle and insidious, has shined most glaringly on white-collar realms — executive offices, writers suites and dressing rooms. But inappropriate behavior can be far more blatant and pervasive in the industry’s blue-collar domains, where it’s also crushingly accepted — even as calls for change begin to sound in more glamorous corridors.

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Exhibit A is the tight-knit, male-dominated Teamster community, where twin drivers Brita McCollough and Brenda Ryan, longtime would-be whistleblowers, have spent more than two decades fruitlessly agitating against systemic gender injustice.

“It’s a boys club. The men look after one another and the women are an afterthought, second-class citizens,” Ryan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ll get blacklisted if we complain to our union, the studios, our bosses. No one will listen.”

The pair, both 55, are frustrated not only by what they view as chronic sexual harassment but also by other forms of gender discrimination — like a comparative lack of opportunity to be staffed on vehicles that offer the best pay rates — and a broken system for registering grievances.

McCollough and Ryan, who grew up in small-town southern Oregon and began their careers in lumber mills, were hardly shocked by the atmosphere they encountered as Hollywood truckers, having started off as on-set caterers in the late 1980s. They worked for men who would skim their per diem, threaten to call on mafia contacts if they complained and smuggled drugs through food shipments. “We were in Yuma, Arizona, on Rambo III and [our boss] opens up this gigantic tuna’s belly and grabs out a pound of cocaine,” recalls Ryan.

Still, the Long Beach, California, residents haven’t forgiven the misogyny they endured during their years as drivers. While employed on 1994’s True Lies (which recently came under scrutiny when actress Eliza Dushku accused stunt coordinator Joel Kramer of molesting her when she was 12), their boss called the twins over in front of eight to 10 other drivers to visually determine which one of them had kids “by their thigh gap,” according to Ryan. “I left crying, because here I thought I was part of a team. I couldn’t tell anyone because I just got in the union and needed health insurance because my youngest was in and out of the hospital with a liver disease.” (Months later, her child died.)

Local 399, which also represents animal handlers, casting directors, location managers and others, claims that it doesn’t keep gender breakdowns by job, but drivers make up 3,000 of the 4,500-member union, which is just 19 percent female. And only three out of about 100 total coordinators — the Teamster in charge of hiring on a project — are female.

“It’s a degrading business for a woman,” says longtime driver Linda Draves. “They call me ‘Double-D’ because my breasts are large.” Colleague Lysa Darden says she has been sexually assaulted on the job. “I had my breast grabbed in front of three witnesses,” she notes. “I never filed a grievance, because there’s no redress.”

The Teamsters retain a culture of cronyism, say female members, and there’s a belief that, if gigs are scarce, men have a bread-winning imperative to be hired over women. “They’ll straight up ask you to your face: ‘Why are you taking a man’s job?’ ” says Rita Lundin, a driver for 37 years.

Women who are suspected of complaining about misconduct are branded as difficult. “After the job is over, you find that you aren’t getting [new] calls,” says one 40-year veteran, “because you’re seen as a troublemaker.”

That’s the fate that has befallen McCollough and Ryan, who contend that as a result of speaking out on sexism, corruption and nepotism, they have been blacklisted from the local’s internal job board, wiretapped (Ryan complained to the FBI) and even successfully prosecuted in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters version of a court system for harassing union officials. Things got so tense, says McCollough, “that at one point I began to carry a gun.”

McCollough, who last drove in January 2017 for CBS’ Code Black after a career working on features (from Air Force One to Ocean’s Eleven), has spent years agitating for change. “Nobody listens,” she says. “I got close with one class action lawsuit, but it needed a ton of drivers to get on board, and at the end of the day it just wasn’t going to happen.” (Her efforts are chronicled in a 5-inch-thick binder she shared with THR.)

“Some people think Brenda and Brita have made it harder on other women,” says one female driver. “Some men say the easiest way not to get accused of harassment is not to hire any women. There are few enough [of us] that no one bats an eye if you only hire guys.”

The twins understand why female colleagues are reluctant to speak out. “It’s really hard,” says Ryan, who ended a nearly decade-long tenure on NCIS: Los Angeles in October (her other credits include Mad Men, Glee and Charmed). “Women are so afraid to lose the few jobs they have, so it’s, ‘Everything is great!’ “

Others say the twins overstate the sexism problem. One driver told THR that her 28 years in the union have been wonderful: “I think [those who have grievances] are a small minority, and overall we’re a family. I’m working with quite a few women right now, and we’re well taken care of.”

Many veterans seem to have grown accustomed to the male-dominated environment, only identifying certain incidences as problematic upon further reflection. “I’ve always demanded respect and gotten it,” says one woman who began driving in 1990. But later in the conversation, she recalled a coordinator grabbing her buttocks and offering more work in exchange for sexual favors. Similarly, Dotti Thompson initially said she hadn’t experienced misogyny on the job, then mentioned a coordinator who told her — on the first day — that he’d “do” her despite her age (she was 57 at the time). “But I let it go,” she says. Both women opted to leave their respective productions without filing a grievance for fear of recrimination. “If I was to say, ‘I’m going to report you,’ I’m going to be looking for a new job,” says Thompson.

The flawed system of investigating grievances is one that Local 399 secretary-treasurer Steve Dayan is aware of and laments. “It’s a huge problem,” he says, adding that men also are afraid to report violations of any sort. “I’m hoping now that the curtain has been lifted [on the Time’s Up movement], more people will come forward.”

But one longtime male member who has served in leadership says that the language in the local’s collective bargaining agreement remains “the big roadblock” for women with potential harassment complaints, who must first go through non-binding mediation. “The women of 399 can’t go along with the #MeToo movement because they are stymied by [their own union],” he says.

However, Dayan says grievances are an employer issue (meaning studio or production company), and even if a grievance is valid, the union is unable to bar someone from work. “I can expel someone from the local,” he says, “and all that means is I’ve lost control of that person.”

In addition to sexual harassment, female drivers also experience their own version of the gender pay gap via an uneven distribution of opportunities. There’s more than a $10 difference between the hourly wage for driving a minivan versus some of the larger trucks, and women often are relegated to the smaller vehicles. Although some are satisfied with remaining van drivers, who typically transport cast and crew — “women are a little more presentable, and they are better with people,” says driver Christa Roberts — others feel restricted.

Adds another driver, “Men jump on the big-budget features with lots of hours at full scale, while women are more likely to work on smaller [productions] that pay less.” Hence, women struggle to reach benchmarks needed for pension and benefits. “I’ve [worked] 18 years and 22,000 hours. A man would have 200,000 hours,” says Draves. “I know a lot of women who have gone out of the business because they went bankrupt or lost their homes because they couldn’t get work.”

Says driver Kathy Brumby : “I had one guy say, ‘I can’t stand women drivers, they should be at home.’ When I pulled up in an 18-wheeler one day, he said, ‘I guess you’re all right — you’re not a fat bitch sitting in a van doing her nails all day.’ ” But driver jobs are set on a day-to-day basis and not protected, so anyone can find themselves out of work if a coordinator’s relative or friend suddenly needs a job. That’s what happened when Brumby was demoted after working on a show for five seasons. “[The coordinator] said I was going part-time because a buddy is coming in and has a wife and kids,” says Brumby, who is single. She complained to the local and to the studio’s HR department to no avail. Instead, she says, she was retaliated against by being sent on errands that required hard manual labor loading trucks on her own. She wrenched her back and was forced to retire on permanent disability.

The dire lack of female coordinators, Dayan says, is something the union is working to change. “It boils my blood,” he says. “We’ll continue to push [studios] and provide people who want to learn this skill.” To that end, Local 399 will hold its first-ever class for members interested in learning the budgeting and administrative skills needed to be a coordinator, a position that has heretofore been largely referral-based. Although the local has no power to force a studio to hire a specific individual, “by providing this class, we can say to the studios that we’re vetting people and giving them training,” Dayan says. “We have a lot of incredibly talented women in this local.”

As for McCollough and Ryan, the sisters believe the fortunes of women like them might shift if pressure is brought to bear by producers, executives and especially stars. Crew bosses respond to marquee talent. When actresses see female truckers pull up in a giant rig, “to this day, they react like they are seeing a unicorn,” says McCollough. “I explain that we’re out there, but you never see us because we never get on your production. Until you call for us, it won’t change.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.