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
horrible”—that’s 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. “I’d often
come home with headaches because of all the dust flying in the projection
room and I’d 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 hadn’t done much organizing. They
don’t 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 Fraiman’s response to the projectionists
was, “It’s 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
couldn’t 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 can’t 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
    labor 

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.” 

By
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 won’t
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. 

Militant
Actions 

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, “[we’re] committed
to punching a hole through the passive acceptance of oppressive
conditions.” Lanskey elaborated: “If you’re 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 boss’s 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 mayor’s office
to denounce the anti-union tactics of the theater. As the date of
the NLRB election approached and Fraiman’s underhanded tactics
became known in the community, “unknown vandals,” according
to the Boston Phoenix, “shattered the Somerville Theater’s
front ticket window and the projectionists publicly swore they didn’t
know who was responsible.” Animosity against the theater had
reached a boiling point. After three months of what the Phoenix’s
Camille Dodero called, “a sanguinary slugfest,” the
Somerville Theater was ready to settle. 

Trade
Union Support 

The
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 didn’t
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.” 

Community
Support 

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 Moore’s
Bowling for Columbine would have some sympathy for our struggle.
Moore’s 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 it’s important
that people are politically and theoretically ready to pick up that
fight in the workplace and in the community.” 

Final
Reflections 

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.