Hollywood is built on strong pro-union sentiment, and when the film industry honors its best and brightest at the Academy Awards ceremony on March 2, you would be hard-pressed to find an attendee who is not a member of one of its powerful guilds.
But in the union stronghold of Chicago, more than 2,000 miles from the glitz and glamour of the red carpet, workers tasked with the very unglamorous work of handcrafting the Oscar statuettes have been involved in a bitter labor dispute, and it doesn’t look like it will be resolved before this year’s telecast.
The Teamsters Local 743 in Chicago has been unable to reach an agreement with R.S. Owens & Company, the local awards shop that has exclusively manufactured the familiar gold statuettes for the last three decades. A clash between the two sides arose sometime after late 2012, when R.S. Owens was acquired by privately held Canadian company St. Regis Crystal Inc. Shortly after the acquisition, R.S. Owens laid off 251 Local 743 members. About 80 percent of those workers were then hired back as St. Regis employees.
Emma Moreno, a representative for Local 743, told IBTimes that St. Regis has since refused to recognize the workers’ seniority or current benefits under a collective bargaining agreement that had been reached before the acquisition. She added that St. Regis has been pushing to operate under an open shop contract, which would allow it to hire nonunion labors. She called the proposal a “direct attack” on the entire American labor movement.
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“We will fight back for a union shop,” Moreno said in an email. “We demand a fair contract.”
Also at issue, Moreno said, is about $120,000 in vacation back pay. On Thursday, the union’s president, Debra Simmons Peterson, participated in negotiations, which Peterson called “a successful situation” in a statement. The parties plan to meet again on March 6, when they will continue to “bargain in good faith on behalf of the membership.” Peterson has stated repeatedly that Local 743 will not negotiate an open shop contract.
Whatever happened at Thursday’s meeting, some progress was evidently made. Local 743 had planned to rally outside of R.S. Owens in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood on Monday, but that protest was canceled after Thursday’s meeting. Peterson could not be immediately reached for further details. Richard Firkser, president and chief executive of St. Regis Crystal, also did not respond to a request for comment on the labor dispute. Still, the date of the upcoming meeting -- four days after the Academy Awards -- is curious, and it’s possible that one or both sides had an interest in negotiating after the increased Oscar-season media attention dies down.
Citing the aforementioned pro-union stance of the Hollywood elite, Moreno told IBTimes that she hopes to contact this year’s Oscar nominees to ask them to express their support in a show of solidarity with the Chicago workers. The 24-karat gold statuettes -- which stand at 13.5 inches and weigh 8.5 pounds -- are cast, molded, polished and buffed by R.S. Owens workers. It takes workers about three to four weeks to produce 50 statuettes, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
St. Regis, for its part, has maintained that the Oscar statuettes will continue to be manufactured at R.S. Owens in Chicago. The 75-year-old shop has a lock of sorts on high-profile awards. It also manufactures trophies for the Emmys, the Cotton Bowl, American Idol and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The relatively small labor battle reflects wavering public support for labor unions and a broader decline in union membership that has taken place over the last half-century. According to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 2013, down from 20 percent in 1983. As Pew Research noted this week, union membership peaked in 1954 at 34.8 percent according to the Congressional Research Service.
The dispute between the St. Regis and the Local 743 has been ongoing for at least several months. In June, the Chicago Business Journal reported that bargaining between the two sides was set to begin on June 12.
Whatever happens, the statuettes for this year’s ceremony shouldn’t be affected. According to the Academy, the coveted golden trophies are manufactured each year in January, several weeks ahead of the ceremony.