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Somerville Projectionists Strike
On August 4, 2003 the newly unionized Somerville Theater projectionists gathered with friends and community supporters to celebrate their victory. After a long and bitter campaign that started in April when they presented the signed union cards that should have earned them immediate recognition, the projectionists finally won a contract that guarantees a 40 percent wage increase that is fixed to and in accordance with the Somerville Living Wage Ordinance.
History of the Campaign
Pretty horriblethats the way Jim Crain, one of the striking projectionists, described working conditions at the Somerville theater. As soon as I started working there I noticed the conditions and how they affected me, he remembers. Id often come home with headaches because of all the dust flying in the projection room and Id talk to Geoff who was going through the same things. We knew we had to do something about it. The previous year a group of projectionists had approached management with complaints regarding low wages, lack of benefits, unhealthy working conditions, and erratic schedules, but they were ignored. Their next step was to form a union.
In spite of concerns regarding union bureaucracies the projectionists approached the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). We met with them to explain the situation, explained projectionist Jim Crain, and they were psyched because, as far as I can tell, they hadnt done much organizing. They dont have paid organizers or even an office because of dwindling memberships.
By April 2003, six of the seven projectionists were in favor of unionizing and five signed union cards to join IATSE, Local 182. On April 30, the projectionists and their union representative, Glenn Dansker, met with Ian Judge, manager of the Somerville Theater, to inform him of their intention to form a union. According to the Weekly Dig, a local paper covering community activities, Somerville Theater owner Mel Fraimans response to the projectionists was, Its been nice working with you.
Faced with this refusal, they filed for an NLRB election. This situation presented the problem that management could use the 60 days, the time required before an NLRB election can take place, to hire replacements and undermine the union. For practical reasons the projectionists filed for an election, but they also went on strike.
Projectionist Mark Laskey explained this move: We were working a lot of hours, three or four days a week, so we felt it was a good opportunity to force the situation. Glenn [union rep] tried to argue that we couldnt walk out, but we told him that we were the work force and the only issue was whether IATSE would support us. And they agreed to support our action.
In addition to this militant move, the projectionists also reached out to the community. In a message to supporters, issued on May 1, they explained their reasons for walking off the job:
- Because we cannot live on minimum wage
- Because if we get sick, we cant afford medical or dental care
- Because we are fed up with a condescending management and the degradation of poverty wages
- Because no one should have to work in a 100-degree dungeon with no ventilation, breathing hazardous dust
- Because our
only recourse is direct action and refusal of our
The community responded to their appeal by joining in the picket lines and calling the theater management to complain. UPS workers honored the picket lines, refusing to deliver to the theater, and, according to the projectionists update of May 6, safety fairies friendly to our cause have filed numerous complaints with the board of Health, OSHA, MassCOSH, and other regulatory bodies.
the end of that first week of the strike, the projectionists learned
that management had hired replacement workers. This tactic forced
the projectionists to change their strategy. According to their
update of May 9, the strikers decided to return to work and
ensure victory in the NLRB election by preventing anti-union projectionists
from being hired. Under current labor laws, striking workers
are allowed to return to work within 30 days of the beginning of
the strike. But when they tried to do that, they were locked out
of the theater. With the help of their union, they filed an Unfair
Labor Practices lawsuit. They also intensified their campaign, urging
supporters to boycott and picket outside the Somerville and the
Capital, another Fraiman-owned theater, and call local representatives
and the mayor of Somerville to inform them of the situation.
On June 13, five weeks after the lock-out and one week before the NLRB election, the projectionists held a large rally in front of the theater, co-sponsored by IATSE local 182, Jobs with Justice, and the Greater Boston Central Labor Council, which featured speeches by State Rep. Patricia Jehlen (D-Somerville), the striking projectionists, and union and community members. The projectionists contested the NLRB election held on June 18, because the owner insisted that the three unlicensed replacement workers, hired after the strike had begun, had the right to vote.
In fact, two weeks before the election, the Somerville Theater was shut down by the Somerville Department of Public Safety because of its use of unlicensed projectionists.
In response to this state of affairs, Dorothy Kelly Gay, mayor of Somerville, and David Dow, of the Somerville Department of Public Works, convened a meeting to resolve the conflict. During this meeting, according to Laskey, management lawyers presented damning evidence that the striking workers were anarchists and had participated in the disturbances of the WTO conference in Seattle. State Rep. Patricia Jehlen defended the projectionists, arguing, Anarchists or not, everyone has a right to a living wage in Somerville. I wont stand for this kind of red-baiting in my city.
This pressure forced Fraiman to the negotiating table. Finally, after several tense meetings in July, when the owner threatened to walk out of negotiations, and the projectionists called on the community to keep on the pressure, Fraiman was forced to recognize the union and sign a two-year contract that provided a significant raise, health benefits, and back pay to locked out workers.
One of the cornerstones of the projectionists organizing campaign was their commitment to militant actions. This commitment has an ideological component and a practical side. As projectionist Jim Crain explained it, as anarcho-communists, they are interested in contributing towards the development of a culture of resistance, [were] committed to punching a hole through the passive acceptance of oppressive conditions. Lanskey elaborated: If youre only making $6.75/hour, you are perfectly entitled to fight for something better. Anybody in our position would want to do it; we just have better skills. Those skills that they brought to the struggle were honed early on through their participation in the anti-WTO events in Seattle.
I grew up in a working class family, explained Crain, and I saw what my blue collar father and older brothers had to go through in their jobs. Similarly, Laskey described developing his sense of working class identity while he was in high school. Once you develop a certain level of consciousness, he explains, you start talking to older activists who help you assimilate the lessons of past struggles. Anti-war activists during the 1960s had the slogan, Bring the war home.
Although the walk-out was a daring action, it was not foolhardy, because it was planned to coincide with the beginning of the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Unfortunately, festival organizers brought their own work crews and reduced the immediate impact of the walk-out. A few other actions, however, were much more successful. Community support during weekend rallies was strong, with 40 to 80 people joining daily picket lines, UPS workers consistently honoring those picket lines, and some musical groups boycotting the theater, either canceling shows or using other venues. According to the June 13 issue of the Boston Phoenix, rocker Jonathan Richman, who was scheduled to appear at the Somerville on June 18, moved his show...to the Middle East Downstairs in support of the locked-out projectionists. According to the Weekly Dig, The Somerville Theater has only one show booked in the month of July, and this may be the result of the labor situation.
The projectionists expanded their activities to include a boycott of the Capital, another theater owned by Fraiman, and the posting of Wanted posters with their bosss picture. They also called on the community to increase the phone campaign, urging them to call the owner or his management company, to complain or to encourage them to settle, and to call the mayors office to denounce the anti-union tactics of the theater. As the date of the NLRB election approached and Fraimans underhanded tactics became known in the community, unknown vandals, according to the Boston Phoenix, shattered the Somerville Theaters front ticket window and the projectionists publicly swore they didnt know who was responsible. Animosity against the theater had reached a boiling point. After three months of what the Phoenixs Camille Dodero called, a sanguinary slugfest, the Somerville Theater was ready to settle.
Trade Union Support
relationship between these anarchist workers and the IATSE, Local
182, has worked well. According to Laskey, the union made it possible
to get significant support from the international, guaranteed connections
with the AFL-CIO and the Labor Council, and provided access to union
lawyers who helped them file for the NLRB-supervised election to
challenge their employer with an Unfair Labor Practices lawsuit
and finally to draft their first contract.
Crain explained that the union wanted us to file for an election and wait, and maybe get fired, so that then they would try to do something. But we were working a lot of hours and we felt it was a good opportunity to force the situation [with] a walkout. This hands-off approach on the part of the union was not an enlightened position, but rather one born out of weakness, because at the time they were approached by the Somerville projectionists they didnt have a union organizer on their staff. The relative success at the Somerville Theater may contribute to changing this situation, however. For starters, the union has been discussing the possibility of creating half-time positions for organizers in order to hire one or two of the projectionists and take advantage of their skills.
Their positive relationship has not obscured for the projectionists the tensions that still exist between militant workers and their unions. Mark Laskey explained that they, work with unions because [unions are] important tools to fight the bosses. But, he adds, unions are caught in the legalistic game of the system. There are so many rules of how you are supposed to strike now. In a way, labor lawyers are considered the main players in the struggle instead of the workers. Not surprisingly, in their victory message, the projectionists proudly proclaimed, In the end it was not through the NLRB that we gained union recognition, but through a sustained campaign of public pressure and direct action. In the same document, however, they gracefully acknowledged the support they received from, fellow unionists from SEIU, UE, CWA, IBEW, IWW, AFA, AFSCME, Teamsters, Greater Boston Central Labor Council, and our own union IATSE.
The community here has been great, enthused Crain, You must remember that Somerville is a blue collar neighborhood and there are many people who are in unions or used to be in unions...when unions were stronger. It is this tradition of trade union, blue collar solidarity that the projectionists tapped into from the beginning, when the Weekly Dig called on the community to rally on May 9-10, and again when they were locked out and chose to escalate the fight. There was a lot of class solidarity, recalls Laskey. People approached us [as if] we were their neighbors, told us about conditions in their jobs or neighborhood, and repeatedly told us that It was good to see kids involved. This expression of class solidarity reached a poignant moment when, in the midst of the war against Iraq, blue collar patrons of the theater, wearing U.S. flag pins and other patriotic symbols, honored the strike, but those who were against the war, and wore anti-war buttons crossed the picket line. We thought that the audience for Michael Moores Bowling for Columbine would have some sympathy for our struggle. Moores politics are very upfront and very much against the war, but they all crossed the picket line, said Laskey.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the projectionists only approached the community in order to get support for their strike and their immediate economic demands. Rather, as Laskey explained, they see every reform struggle as a process towards the radical transformation of society, where every action shows people that you can fight and you can win. The projectionists believed that by inviting the community to participate in their struggle, by inviting them to their support rallies, to join the picket lines, to make phone calls on their behalf, to post Wanted posters and pass out fliers, by engaging them in lively political discussions, they contributed to the political development of each member of the community. This attitude seems to be grounded on their political analysis of conditions in this country. We think there is going to be a point of crisis in capitalism and people are going to have to take sides. So, we think its important that people are politically and theoretically ready to pick up that fight in the workplace and in the community.
Another element worth noticing in this struggle is the process of collective political education undergone by all the participants: the striking workers, their union, and their community supporters. Their union, IATSE, Local 182, came in contact with a group of engaged activist workers who brought their energy and vitality to union organizing. The projectionists experienced the inner workings of present day trade unionism, but also connected to a strong working class, blue collar tradition of labor solidarity. Similarly, their reaching out to the community, which they needed to put pressure on theater management, also contributed to the political education of everyone involved. This approach offers the optimism of shared struggle as an antidote to the pessimism and passivity of acceptance. Lastly, the projectionists did not conceive reaching their goal of unionizing their shop and signing a contract that guaranteed better wages as the end of the struggle, but rather only as one instance that they hope will lead to many other struggles, many other victories.
Carlos Suárez-Boulangger is a political activist and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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