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The Writers Guild of America East triggered a surge of intra-union activism in Hollywood in June 2020 when it called for the major labor federation AFL-CIO to disassociate from a police union in its ranks. The effort was one tangible way, these workers felt at the time, that they could choose to fight for racial justice within the entertainment industry.
Not long after, amid protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, rank-and-file members of SAG-AFTRA and IATSE attempted to follow suit, starting petitions and organizing meetings with the goal of disaffiliating the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) from the federation. Organized workers also formed the IATSE Members for Racial Justice group and SEIU Drop the Cops, which aims to persuade the union that represents some Disneyland workers to sever ties with police labor under its umbrella. A handful of entertainment workers also attended meetings of the grassroots group No Cop Unions, which focuses on ending the AFL-CIO’s police ties.
However, one year later, the IUPA remains a member of the AFL-CIO and industry activists involved in the cause say their efforts on this issue have stalled or pivoted in the face of bureaucratic complications, competing causes and pandemic-era burnout. While no activists involved say they’re giving up, many have gotten an education in the process of pursuing the initiative.
“One thing that this has revealed is that it’s a lot more complicated than we thought it could ever be,” says John Roney, a camera assistant (Little Fires Everywhere, GLOW) and a member of IATSE Members for Racial Justice, of the AFL-CIO effort.
Actors Alison Becker (Parks and Recreation, The Unicorn) and Alexis Simpson (Hollywood, SWAT) say they faced hurdles after they started a petition in the summer of 2020 demanding that SAG-AFTRA issue a resolution on the AFL-CIO’s relationship to the IUPA. As the performers gained more than 1,000 signatures, they caught the attention of high-profile union members including Busy Philipps and Miranda July, who were also looking to push the issue within the union. The group connected with nonprofit organizations including Color of Change and BLD PWR, then set about drafting a letter signed by prominent union members. Addressed to SAG-AFTRA leadership, the letter called for the passage of a resolution and suggested that a recall of union president Gabrielle Carteris could be a consequence of failure to take action. (In July, Carteris announced she had opted not to seek reelection as president.) However, momentum on the letter slowed in the fall as organizers got busy with 2020 election efforts and COVID-19 cases rose.
“It should have been easy, that was the thing. It felt like it was a no-brainer,” says Philipps, who adds that she still aims to support activism in this area. July adds, “I see [this issue] still having its moment, and the work we did doesn’t expire. If anything, the larger consciousness of the culture is behind it.”
After the letter was shelved, Becker and Simpson kept working on starting a presidential recall, but say their point people at the union did not provide information on how to draft a legitimate recall petition as the upcoming SAG-AFTRA elections grew nearer. Now, “We are still hoping to support a candidate whose beliefs are anti-racist and who wishes to support the vulnerable members of our union,” Becker said in a statement. (When asked about updates to the union’s racial justice efforts since the summer of 2020, a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said, “SAG-AFTRA, along with other groups, supports the introduction of SB 2 and SB 16, which will be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee when the Legislature comes back from its Summer Recess.”)
Since IATSE Members for Racial Justice formed in the summer of 2020, there has been “almost no real progress” in the group’s efforts to separate the AFL-CIO from the IUPA, says Roney. However, members of the group also aided the successful effort to push IATSE and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to rescind their support of former L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who lost her 2020 race to progressive candidate George Gascón.
IATSE Members for Racial Justice is currently attempting to push the L.A. County Federation of Labor to disassociate from the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) and the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS). It is also now looking to amend L.A. Municipal Code Section 80.03.1, which authorizes the Los Angeles chief of police to place off-duty and retired police officers on commercial filming sites on public property for traffic and crowd control. The group would like to employ unionized construction workers or traffic coordinators to fulfill that role instead, and are planning to present the idea to L.A. City Council members like recently elected progressive Nithya Raman.
“My hope is that through removing police officers from set, we can exhibit a successful example of defunding the police in a community-building fashion,” adds Max Schwartz, a studio electrical lighting technician (Clemency, A Black Lady Sketch Show) and group member. (On Aug. 4, IATSE announced that it had adopted a new equity statement and is standardizing a member census process to assess demographic data, which typically been up to locals to measure in previous years.)
Though at one point in 2020 the grassroots labor group No Cop Unions met on weekly calls, those gatherings lost attendees by the end of the year and beginning of 2021, says Simpson, who attended and credits burnout for the change in pace. “It’s been kind of dead so far this year,” she says. (No Cop Unions did not respond to requests for an interview.)
The group SEIU Drop the Cops, however, is still holding planning meetings and is organizing a “No Cops! No Exploitation!” conference in mid-August alongside other organizations, including IATSE Members for Racial Justice. “We have encountered lots of challenges, maybe the most surprising is some of the pushback we’ve gotten from within our locals for bringing up these issues,” said Solomon Garber, a member of the group and SEIU Local 509, in a statement.
In May, the AFL-CIO appeared to respond to criticisms of its police ties when it released a “Public Safety Blueprint for Change” report. Offering police reform recommendations from unionized members in law enforcement — suggestions included “greater investment” in public safety — the report did not satisfy critics of police unions. Schwartz says that remarks decrying police brutality that he’s seen from the very labor federations his group and others are targeting “really act as nothing more than statements until actions follows suit.” He adds, “until they take action we just have to continue on our own.”
Hamilton Nolan, a member of the WGA East council and a labor reporter for In These Times magazine, says he is trying to get his union to issue a follow-up statement in response to the AFL-CIO report. “In a bureaucratic battle, they can beat you just by waiting you out,” Nolan notes. “And that’s what’s happening right now.”
A version of this story appeared in the Aug. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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