Tea Party activist Norm Novitsky’s In Search of Liberty, a crowdfunded feature film about the U.S. Constitution, has been shut down in Savannah, GA, after 30 members of his crew walked off the job. The group, made up mostly of students and recent graduates from the Savannah College of Art and Design, had been seeking union representation, living wages and reclassification as employees rather than independent contractors.
The film, which stars Food Network host Bobby Deen, son of reality star Paula Deen, bills itself as a “a straight-to-DVD release that tells the story of a captivating statesman from America’s past” who takes a present-day family on a series of wild adventures that “opens their eyes to the origins and importance of the U.S. Constitution, the degree to which it is under attack and what can be done to save it.”
The film’s crew had worked on the shoot for three weeks. Dissatisfied with their wages and working conditions, they approached IATSE for representation. They walked off the job en masse on July 2, and the producers shut down the film Thursday when they couldn’t find a replacement crew.
IATSE has filed unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming union reps were subjected to threats and acts of intimidation during their efforts to organize the workers. A member of the crew is scheduled to present evidence Monday to the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor that crew members were not paid minimum wages and did not receive overtime pay.
Novitsky did not return calls for comment on this report.
“The conduct of this company is utterly disgraceful,” said Darla McGlamery, business rep of IATSE Cinematographers Guild Local 600 in Atlanta. “These courageous young people have sought only to be treated as industry professionals consistent with the employment and labor laws of the United States.”
Said IATSE internal rep Scott Harbinson, who led the drive to unionize the production: “The irony and hypocrisy of a Tea Party activist like Norm Novitsky misclassifying employees as independent contractors in order to push payroll tax burdens from themselves on to employees – all the while seeking a $300,000 incentive from the taxpayers of the state of Georgia – is lost on no one.
“This is a million-dollar film by a Tea Party activist whose crew was probably 90% kids from the Savannah College of Art and Design,” Harbinson told Deadline. “They were very excited to work on a real movie. But when they took the job, they got an ugly taste of what the real world can look like. One of the older students let us know that they were abusing the kids – not just with the pay and conditions, but verbally abusing them. Many of these kids were making less than minimum wage and had to sign deal memos saying they that were independent contractors and declaring that they were not members of the union.”
Harbinson, an IATSE organizer for 28 years, flew into town last Saturday and that day received cards from 26 crew members authorizing the union as their bargaining representative. But when the film company, BlueNile Films, refused to recognize the union, he said, “We directed the entire crew to convince the company that we represent them by not showing up for work.”
The crew, most in their early 20s, went on strike Sunday. Later that day, the company then sent them emails threatening to have them arrested if they didn’t return company equipment in their possession.
“We understand that you have broken your contract as of today,” the emails said. “We will be doing an inventory of all the equipment and other possessions of the production company. If you have any items that belong to the production company, all items in your possession must be returned by 3 pm, July 3rd, 2016. Any items not returned will be reported to authorities as stolen, including cars, keys, walkie-talkies, prepaid debit cards, etc.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Harbinson said. “So I told the kids to bring all the stuff to our hotel. Darla logged all the equipment and gave the kids a receipt. They gave the director of photography a picture car – an SUV – and he brought it over to hotel parking lot and gave us the key. He was scared. I then called Chip Lane, the show’s production manager, and told him that the crew had turned the property over to us and to come pick it up. He told me he was going to have me arrested and that the police were on their way and that I’d ‘never see the outside of a prison gate.’”
Harbinson piled all the equipment into the SUV, wrapped the key in tin foil to defeat the car’s anti-locking device, tossed it on the seat and shut the door, locking everything inside so it couldn’t be stolen.
When the police and the production manager arrived at the hotel, Harbinson said, “The cop looked like he wanted to arrest me. I asked him to hear my side of the story, and explained the timeline to him. He said, ‘Where are the keys?’ I said I locked them in the car. Chip was screaming and waving his arms. He told the cop that there are no other keys. The officer seemed amused by all this.”
The policeman said, “I have no basis to arrest y’all,” and a few hours later, a locksmith showed up to unlock the SUV.
That Monday was a holiday, but the union set about to make sure the company wouldn’t be able to find “scabs” to replace the striking students. After word came back to organizers the company was looking for replacements, they told local IATSE members to go ahead and accept the jobs — with the understanding they would not show up for work.
“They were dark Tuesday and Wednesday,” Harbinson said, “and they finally issued call sheets for Thursday. And then the wheels came off. They had 70 extras and a band and a camera crane all set for a big day of shooting, and they were very smug thinking they’d beaten these kids.”
It didn’t take long for the film’s producers to realize they’d been punked, and that no one was going to show up to take the strikers’ jobs — even though some of the “scabs” they’d thought they’d hired had been promised five times what the original crew had been making.
On Thursday, the company shuttered the production. “The union is shutting the production down and we will not be filming anytime in the foreseeable future,” the company told the crew in an email yesterday. “We appreciate your effort over the past couple of days, and you will be paid for the rate agreed upon for the days you were on board.”
The young crew lost a few days of work but gained a valuable experience.
“This is the most rewarding organizing effort that I can ever remember,” Harbinson said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted – with a contract – but it expressed the fundamental mission of labor, which is to empower workers to stand up for their rights. These kids are the true heroes of this story, and every one of those kids now has a card with the IATSE. And I’m willing to bet that they are going to be some of the best members we’ve ever had.”