IATSE Local 52 Elects New Leaders in a Climate of Fear and Turmoil

Film and TV production workers in New York are casting ballots this week to elect a new union president.

Two candidates are running to replace John R. Ford, who is retiring after 18 years as president of IATSE Local 52. The campaign has been marked by unusual turmoil, as members have been alarmed by a recent legal settlement that prohibits the union from “bumping” non-union members out of production jobs.

Many fear that the settlement will mean fewer jobs for current union cardholders — and a weaker union.

“We’ve been told for all these years that if we have a union card, we pretty much have a job for life,” said Ryan Gargiulo, who is running to represent the property department. “This threatens that.”

Local 52 represents about 4,500 members in the New York area across a range of “below the line” crafts, including grips, electricians, set dressers, gaffers, and propmasters.

Mandie DeMeskey, the union’s business representative, is running for the presidency with a slate of other candidates. In 2020, she married Matthew Loeb, the president of the parent union, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees.

In recent weeks, she has had to confront whispers that her marriage to the president of “the International” poses a threat to the autonomy of Local 52. (The New York local bargains its contracts separately from other IATSE locals, and members want to hang on to perks like higher meal penalties.)

“There are rumors that he has some arbitrary, sinister scheme to take over or somehow harm Local 52, which are simply false,” DeMeskey wrote on Instagram. “It’s political fear mongering with no basis in reality.”

DeMeskey, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was also involved in the “bumping” controversy. James Harker, a longtime member, brought a complaint about the union’s practices to the National Labor Relations Board. As part of the complaint, Harker submitted a voicemail message that DeMeskey — as business representative — had left for a non-member who had taken a production job.

“I want to know if you took that job, if you’re working on that job, if you’re there now, if you’ve tested for them, because I don’t know who you are, and you didn’t ask to work in my jurisdiction,” DeMeskey said on the voicemail. “Right? Because that’s not that way that kinda works. I’m sure you know that. So why don’t you give me a call back so we can make this all go away.”

Harker sent an email to the entire membership on Nov. 19, in which he denounced DeMeskey and her slate as “mobster cosplayers.” He attached a copy of the voicemail along with other material.

Harker also declined to comment for this story. His complaint led to the settlement between Local 52 and the NLRB, in which the union agreed to prominently post a notice vowing that it will not “bump” non-union workers or otherwise prevent non-members from working.

“Nonmembers do not need to obtain the union’s approval before applying for union-represented positions or accepting offers of employment,” the notice states.

Some within the union view the settlement as a simple restatement of well-established labor law.

“If the lawsuit says we were doing something wrong, we just have to educate everyone out there on the job and do things by the book,” said Ken Tanzer, a grip who is running for secretary-treasurer. “I’m all about trying to get us to comply to make us litigation proof. I don’t want to go down the road of getting sued all the time. Do things by the rules and you won’t have that problem anymore.”

But others fear that if the union no longer wields full control over production jobs in New York, it will dilute the power of a union card. Some have argued that the Harker settlement effectively turns New York into a “right to work” state.

“It’s breaking a union,” said Glynis Burke, who is running for chairman of the board of trustees. “These are really fragile times, crucial times. Change is afoot. A lot of us do have fear with this NLRB nightmare, and in the way it has occurred from within. It’s obscene.”

Harker is persona non grata on both sides of the political divide. DeMeskey’s opponent, William “Dusty” Klatt, echoed the concerns that others had raised about the settlement, and noted that Harker was represented by a “union-busting legal firm.”

“This is the guy who started all the trouble,” Klatt said, when asked if he was on “Team Harker.” “I don’t want to be on anything Harker.”

Gargiulo, who is supporting Klatt, said that he worries that the Harker settlement could make sets more dangerous.

“If you get someone who’s not skilled, you’ll have another Alec Baldwin situation,” he argued, alluding to the fatal shooting on the set of “Rust” last year in New Mexico.

On Nov. 13 — about two weeks after the settlement was announced — Harker sent an email to the membership offering a sarcastic “endorsement” of DeMeskey and her slate. DeMeskey responded on Instagram saying that she had never met or spoken to Harker, and the email was an attempt to attach her to the “unpopular matter” of his NLRB case.

“Please do not fall for this,” she wrote. “You know us. We had nothing to do with this.”

Klatt said that Harker’s emails will probably end up hurting him, because people will assume that he is aligned with Harker.

Klatt, a longtime union official who as served on the local’s constitution committees, said he had made up his mind not to say anything negative about DeMeskey during the campaign. He also said that people shouldn’t worry too much about DeMeskey’s marriage to Loeb.

“I think people are making more of that than is warranted,” Klatt said. “You have an executive board, and the president, whether Mandie or myself, is bound by the constitution to work with the executive board. I don’t think the executive board is going to give up 52’s autonomy any time soon. Could it be a concern? For me, I don’t see it as life-threatening.”

DeMeskey also addressed the issue of the local’s independence in her Instagram post, saying: “I stand on my own two feet. I love, trust, and respect my husband but will ALWAYS let my conscience guide my actions on your behalf.”

Ari Schwartz, who is running against Burke for chairman of the board, is supporting DeMeskey and is listed on her slate.

“People say Matt’s gonna tell Mandie exactly what to do,” Schwartz said. “Anybody who knows what’s gone on in the past will tell you there are an awful lot of things that no local of size and significance does without the International saying it’s OK. Our contracts don’t happen until the International president says that’s what you’re going to do.

“Mandie knows what she wants, and she’s already got plans. Did she hatch these in concert with Matt? Listen, don’t we do everything with a little advice from our spouses?”

The election results are expected on Friday.

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