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Early on in his tenure as the leader of the Hollywood Teamsters, Steve Dayan figured he would try to head up Local 399 for three, maybe four, three-year terms before passing on the baton. But he was still in the middle of his third term when he says he realized that he had a future leader on hand in recording secretary Lindsay Dougherty and staff members who were ready to take the reins. “I can leave knowing that the Local is in good hands. And I’ve always been one not to overstay my welcome,” he says.
After eight years as the Local’s secretary-treasurer, Dayan decided to retire before his third term concluded, as he announced in mid-March; April 30 will be his last day. Dougherty, who last year won an election to become a Teamsters International Western Region vice president and this year was appointed the international union’s motion picture and theatrical trade division director, was unanimously voted in by the Local’s executive board to serve out the remainder of Dayan’s three-year term.
During his time in the local union, which bargains on behalf of nearly 6,000 industry workers including drivers, dispatchers, location managers, casting directors, animal handlers and wranglers and mechanics, Dayan lobbied for California’s film and television tax incentive program, took on new organizing efforts and negotiated contracts like the Local’s location manager deal. He has also headed up the reformation of worker committees, the introduction of social media profiles and a mobile app and the Local’s reaffiliation with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Prior to joining the union staff, Dayan worked as a projectionist, assistant editor and, finally, location manager on films like Edtv, City of Angels and The Cable Guy. After 46 years in the entertainment industry, Dayan says that stepping aside is “a tough thing to do; it’s the right thing to do.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter before his final general membership meeting, Dayan discussed why he feels Dougherty is the best choice to serve out his term, his greatest achievements and failures in office, and what he thinks lies ahead for the international union under the leadership of new general president Sean O’Brien.
You said in a statement announcing your retirement that it was important to know when to leave and pass on the reins to the next generation. You said you “couldn’t be more certain” that that time had come. Can you say a little bit more about why you decided now was the time?
[When] I started here [at Local 399] in 1999, I was 42 years old, and when I went to take office as the principal officer, I was 56 years old. So I think I came to realize relatively soon after I took this position that I really felt that my responsibility was to transition the Local from the baby boomer generation to the next generation. And so my focus from almost the very beginning when I started was to train up my staff to identify someone who could replace me and then to focus my attention on making sure that’s what we accomplished. While we were putting the structures in place that I wanted to put in place under my tenure, I figured I would be here for three terms, maybe four, to be honest, but my staff has proven to be quicker and smarter and faster than I thought they would be, as usual.
And so what happened was that Lindsay Dougherty, who is replacing me, came to me and asked me if I had a problem if she ran for office [for an international vice president of the Western Region position]. Most principal officers would probably say “no” because they don’t want anybody getting ahead of them. To me, that’s the total opposite of who I am: I want to support and encourage my people to get as educated as possible, to take risks, to put themselves out there; I think that’s really important, and you have to lead by example. Lindsay is so prepared and the staff is so prepared that I realized I didn’t have to run another term. I can leave knowing that the Local is in good hands. And I’ve always been one not to overstay my welcome. [Lindsay] was elected an international vice president and she’s also now the director of the motion picture division as well as going to be the secretary-treasurer of this local union on May 1. She’s young, energetic, excited, and I couldn’t be more pleased to put a second-generation Teamster in this position that she is so prepared for and so ready to take on.
Why was Lindsay Dougherty the right choice to serve out the rest of your term, in your view?
I think she’s the right person because she got herself elected as a [Teamsters Western Region international] vice president — that’s not an easy task to do, to become a national candidate. It’s one thing to be a local union candidate, like I was; it’s another thing to be a national candidate and run for national office. I think that Lindsay’s very bright and intelligent. And there’s something that I’ve always said, which is that you can teach somebody how to do this job, but you can’t teach people to be passionate about their job. That’s something you either have or you don’t have, and that’s something that I think Lindsay has in spades. She’s passionate about the job, she cares about the membership, she’s committed herself, and by going around the country and learning what she’s learned, this will only help her here. She’s gotten to see how a lot of different local unions operate. And so that is, to me, really wonderful.
The other thing is that Lindsay is very direct, she’s got great relationships with these companies, she’s straight up with them. I’ll tell you a quick story: We’re in negotiations [one time] and Carol Lombardini, who is the head of the Alliance [of Motion Picture and Television Producers], is telling a story — this is in the days when we actually sat across the table from the employers in bargaining. And so Carol starts talking about Mary Tyler Moore, she tells a little story about Mary Tyler Moore and there’s a beat and Lindsay says, “Who’s Mary Tyler Moore?” And the room just broke out laughing because they knew she was fucking with them, but it just shows you her sense of timing and the fact that she’s willing to do that. She’s got chutzpah, she’s got guts, and I think that’s what you need in this job because you have to make tough decisions, you have to be confrontational. Sometimes it just doesn’t go the way you want it to go and you may have to take a crew out on strike or a group of individuals out on strike — that’s a very stressful thing.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievements during your tenure at Local 399?
I think my greatest achievement is leaving the team in place that I’m leaving. What I’ve done is irrelevant now; it’s done. What’s important now is what’s going forward, what’s the future going to bring, and I think the future for this local union is a very bright one, and I’m so proud of this membership and I’m so proud of my team. I know they’re going to carry forward the work that I’ve done and the work that Leo did before me. I have every confidence in this team and that’s why I can step away. I think they’re going to do a better job than I did, to be honest. That’s my expectation anyway, that they do better than I did. That’s the bar I want to set for them.
Conversely, what do you consider to be your biggest mistakes or failures?
Well, we tried to organize the composers and that did not work out. Not every organizing effort is successful, and I spent at least a couple of years trying to organize composers and get them covered and I’m really sorry I wasn’t able to do that. I think my biggest mistake is maybe taking things personally, overreacting to circumstances. Because this is about peoples’ lives and so it gets personal for me.
What were the biggest challenges you face while in office?
Every contract cycle is a big challenge because you’re trying to get as much as you possibly can. In every transaction with the companies we’re trying to get the very best we can for our people, so that’s always a challenge and that will continue to be a challenge, to convince employers that hiring us is the right thing to do because we’re professionals, we know what we’re doing. So, yes, does it cost you more to hire a union person? It does, yes. But what we bring to the table is experience and knowledge; we know how to avoid the pitfalls. We can tell you when a disaster is coming because we see it ahead of time. And that’s what crews can do to save the bacon of companies, and that’s what they do every day. Sometimes I wonder that the companies don’t appreciate the little miracles that get pulled off every day, to get the day’s production done. The production crews are the ones that make it happen: They provide the space for the actors to do what they do, and if there wasn’t a crew there would be no show, period.
I understand that you introduced social media profiles to the union and also, in your messages to members in the Teamsters Local 399 Newsreels over the years, you advocated for more civil dialogue on social media. How do you think social media is important for entertainment unions, and how can it be detrimental?
I think it is absolutely important because it’s another place where we can hear from our members. You need to embrace social media, and that’s the good and the bad. So I guess my feeling about social media is that it’s a reality that we need to deal with, and I do believe sometimes people don’t realize the hurtful things that they say on the internet. But I guess that’s just part of the process, and we live in a country where free speech is valued, and of course I agree with that 100 percent. Sometimes a narrative that isn’t accurate may fill the air, but hopefully you can speak to it and address whatever the concern is. There’s not a whole lot you can do other than be open, honest and transparent and communicate, and that’s what we do.
I’ve always told my members, “We need to stick together; if we become divided, then the employers win.” So we need to stay together even if we have different political backgrounds and beliefs and things like that. It’s for our own survival and in our own best interests. The companies we’re dealing with are the largest corporations on this planet, so we need to be mindful of who we’re dealing with and make sure we’re doing everything we can to protect members and get as much as we can out of the companies and the employers for them.
After nearly five decades in the business, how do you feel about the state of the Hollywood labor movement and where it’s headed?
Look, my hope is that we come more together as labor unions. I think what happens is that each union is busy fighting its own turf war, and I really believe we need to come together as unions and support each other more, so I hope that happens. But I think the future’s very bright for the film industry. There’s been an explosion of content, which means there’s plenty of work, there’s so many platforms and streaming services now that you’ve got to feed the beast, so I think that’s going to bode well for the industry for at least the next five, ten years. I think we’re going to see good times. I’m hoping now that more and more people will return to movie theaters and life will return more to normal.
What do you think are the most important challenges that Local 399 will face in the next few years?
I think really the challenges are going to be with the companies and the nature of how the work moves forward in terms of trying to balance work and free time, because working on productions just takes a long time. My hope is that we find a way to reduce the number of hours that people are working. But at the end of the day, I don’t see a lot of challenges in the way, at the moment. I actually see that this is actually going to be just a good, busy time. I don’t see any pitfalls other than making sure that we can get what’s fair and reasonable from the employers, and that’s always, always a challenge.
Which parts of the business does Local 399 need to be organizing next, in your view?
I believe that there is some national organizing that needs to be done, and I know Lindsay will work on that. I believe that there’s more organizing that needs to be happen in Hollywood — we’ve been organizing grip and electric companies and vendors, so I think there are a lot of vendors that could be organized, and there are definitely targets and opportunities for the labor movement if we take advantage of them. And we will always have people coming in the door saying, “I want to get organized.”
I’ve got to tell you, there’s not one group I’ve organized that I regret having organized. That’s the best feeling in the world to know that you’ve helped somebody, that you’ve pulled them up, and it does make a difference. I’ve had an incredible career and it’s all because I got into a union. I did not have a college degree, I’m embarrassed to say that, but I don’t have a college degree, and look where I am, and it’s all because of the labor movement. And I may have something to do with it, but the point is that that opportunity was handed to me because I belonged to a labor union. So I’m so grateful, I will forever be grateful for being a member of a union.
The international Teamsters organization recently saw its first leadership shake-up in a long time, with Sean O’Brien replacing longtime leaders James P. Hoffa. How do you think Sean O’Brien is going to change the International?
I think Sean is going to be far more aggressive, and I think they’re going to listen to the membership more. I think they’re going to do some of the things that we’ve done here, which is communicate to the membership, educate, organize. I have a lot of hope that the International is going to be a better organization as a result. I have a lot of confidence because I think he’s also young and energetic, and I think that’s important as well.
Local 399, for the first time, has a representative on the Teamsters General Executive Board with the election of Lindsay Dougherty to that seat. What role do you think Hollywood labor can play in the International’s future?
I actually believe that Lindsay could be the next general president if she chose to be when Sean decides to step down, so the future is very bright for Lindsay, but it’s also bright for Local 399 because I kind of feel like we have a seat at the adult table. We have a seat at the big table and Lindsay’s going to make sure she’s loud, and Sean knows it. She’s going to make sure our issues are heard loud and clear. And if they don’t do anything about it, she will make sure that they know they’re not doing anything about it, and that’s really huge. I think Lindsay as the director of the motion picture division is also going to make a big difference for all the Teamster members in the film industry nationally. I’m very excited to see the future, what the next few years brings in the Teamsters. It’s a new day for the Teamsters.
What’s next for you?
You know, I’m heading to Costa Rica for six weeks, so I’m going to take some time off and then I’ll see. But I think first and foremost is just to spend some time with my family and make sure they’re all well taken care of. Because I think that my focus has not been where it should have been — now it’s time for me to focus on my family.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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