One of Barack Obama’s staunchest supporters and prized campaigners and film biographers from the motion picture and television business has just been accused of union busting, according to a complaint filed Thursday with the National Labor Relations Board. Before the exposé, writer/actor/director/producer/author/playwright Tyler Perry invited the presidential candidate to the grand opening of his entertainment studio on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, this coming Saturday night. But if Obama attends he will be met by picket lines thrown up by the Writers Guild of America and joined by members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, even though the latter union has officially endorsed the Democrat. “This is just the first step. We’ve got a lot more planned,” a WGA insider told me last night, indicating that the Perry picketing may widen to Time Warner’s TBS which broadcasts his hugely popular House Of Payne sitcom, and an upcoming TV spinoff of one of Perry’s movie’s Meet The Browns.
Perry, whose estimated worth is $500 million, is much more than just another Barack Obama supporter. He donated the maximum $4,600 to the campaign. (In fact, he donated $6,900 but then took back $2,300 when it exceeded the limit.) He also has announced plans to make an Obama film. Perry told the press he is already writing, and plans to direct and produce as soon as late this year, a love story inspired by the relationship between Obama and his wife Michelle. (Perry has said he dreams of casting Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in the lead roles.) It’s not known if the Obamas are cooperating with the film, but the idea occurred to Perry after he heard their story when he had dinner with the couple as well as from his close pal, Oprah Winfrey, who is Obama’s biggest showbiz supporter but whose own union track record is one of the worst. (Perry this summer traveled with Oprah to Italy. And it was Oprah who recently convinced Perry to write his autobioraphy. In fact Perry credits his entire writing career to the inspiration he received watching the Oprah Winfrey Show.) Perry told reporters about the Obamas, “They just inspired this amazing story. It’s a love story with a little political twist… It’s called For the Love of You and it’s about his love for his woman. It’s going to be amazing.”
Also, around the time of the Democratic National Convention this summer, Perry suggested that Obama bring onto the ticket “Madea” — the recurring character played by Perry in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, and other of his films. “Madea is the running mate — Obama and Madea, that’s it,” he joked to reporters. “She’s heading up foreign affairs and I think she’ll be Chief of Staff so we’ll see!”
Perry also has been stumping for Obama, most recently in the battleground state of Florida in front of faith-based groups because of his religious zeal. The entertainment mogul and native Southerner spoke to several hundred people at the New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale Friday to encourage them to register and vote for Obama. He said he’d never cast a ballot in his 39 years but recently registered in Georgia because Obama had moved him to do so, “not because Barack Obama is black. That would be a ridiculous reason to vote for somebody. [But because] he is the best candidate and the most qualified to lead this nation.” Campaigning in Miami-Dade and Broward counties over the weekend, he gave what he described as “embarrassing testimony” about being one of those people who didn’t believe his vote made a difference. “There are a lot of people who think that way. I was wrong,” said Perry. But after hearing a speech in which Obama outlined his background, “it became clear to me that finally someone has come along who can relate to hard working people.”
Why allegations of union busting against Perry are so embarrassing to Obama is not just because unions are the stronghold of the Democratic Party, but because the candidate had to spend considerable time and effort courting the national unions for their primary and general election support. Most of the union support went to Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the first stages of the primary, and then began to swing to Obama when Edwards dropped out of the race and threw his support to Obama. That’s only when Obama got close to equalizing Hillary’s advantage with organized labor. Union support will prove vital to Obama in battleground states with McCain like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania which have hundreds of thousands of manufacturing and blue collar jobs over the past 15 years. Nevada is another battleground state with McCain, and many credit Obama’s caucus win there over Hillary to the endorsement he received from the state’s influential 60,000-member Culinary Union, which represents Nevada’s casino, hotel and restaurant employees, in conjunction with its parent union, Unite Here, which has 460,000 members nationwide. Among other endorsements received by Obama are the steelworkers, mineworkers, and AFL-CIO.
The Writers Guild played a role during the Democratic presidential primary when Obama, Clinton and Edwards all refused to cross picket lines while the Hollywood guild was on strike. (Edwards even visited one huge WGA rally, and Obama was criticized for not attending.) In addition, a CBS televised debate among the Democratic presidential candidates had to be canceled to avoid a potential conflict with striking WGA writers. The decision was made by the Democratic National Committee concerning a December 10th, 2007, debate at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, where pickets gathered every day.
The Perry company’s alleged union-busting activities were kept secret until last night when at 4 pm PT the WGA West issued a surprise news release about what had gone on for the past six months inside his production company, House of Payne, LLC. That same day, the guild filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, alleging that House of Payne unlawfully fired four writers in retaliation for their union activity. The charge also accused the company of bargaining in bad faith with the Guild, which had been seeking to negotiate a contract covering the writers on Perry’s cable television series House of Payne and Meet the Browns. The four scribes, Kellie Griffin, Christopher Moore, Teri Brown-Jackson, and Lamont Ferrell, are all African Americans and together have written over 100 episodes, according to the WGA.
According to the WGA, “House of Payne is an incredibly successful program. According to TBS, the second episode was basic cable’s all-time No. 1 sitcom telecast. House of Payne has generated $200 million in license fees from TBS for 126 episodes and recently sold into syndication on ‘MyNetwork’ for a reported additional $100 million. The House of Payne actors are covered under a Screen Actors Guild contract, and Mr. Perry, who has directed every single episode to date, is covered under a Directors Guild contract. However, House of Payne is one of the only scripted shows on TV that isn’t covered under a WGA contract.’
A lawyer for Perry is claiming that the writers’ firings had nothing to do with contract negotiations but was related to “the quality of their work”. But the timing of the firings is especially suspicious since it comes just as House Of Payne was being syndicated (which is when the big money starts to roll in) and just when the writers were working on the development of Perry’s new comedy premiering in January on TBS. Perry’s lawyer admited that all the contract issues were pinned down except one — residuals from repeats shown on broadcast TV stations. Those small residuals are vital to the financial security of showbiz writers. By contrast, Perry signed a $200 million 100-episode deal with TBS for the show. Besides residuals, Perry has refused to agree to a WGA contract that would give the writers health care benefits or pensions. On Tuesday of this week, Perry fired the writers, after warning them some weeks ago that they should “be careful about pushing the WGA deal or you could be replaced,” according to one of the axed scribes.
Although Perry’s entertainment content has been criticized for perpetuating African American steroetypes, his production business is one of the most active and profitable around. He owns 100% of his films and TV productions, so, as an indie, he can forgo a guild agreement even though most producers become signatories in order to employ WGA-caliber writers. Today, the WGA reminded guild members that, “under Working Rule 8, members of the Writers Guild of America, West may not accept employment with any non-signatory entity, including Tyler Perry studios and all of its related entities. The guild intends to fully enforce this important policy.”
This weekend is the grand opening of his 60,000 square foot production complex on 28 acres situated in Atlanta’s outskirts. Tyler Perry Studio is a monument to himself as well as the first independent studio of its size to open in Georgia. It features a 300-seat screening room, three soundstages, and a theater. It will also host a theater company and acting school in the future. But on Saturday and again on Sunday, the WGA, the Teamsters, and other union groups will be picketing the gala. A large crowd of Hollywood actors who’ve worked with Perry as well as local luminaries were expected to attend. But the WGA unions are asking them to respect the picket line and stay away.
This is not the first alleged union buster to be a big Obama supporter. Most of the Hollywood CEOs (except Paramount’s Brad Grey who’s a McCain donor) and their wives are big fundraisers and campaigners and supporters of Obama’s even if their Big Media bosses tend to be avowed Republicans. But all the studios and networks have been working for the past 18 months to bust two of Hollywood’s highest cost talent guilds. The WGA filed charges with the NLRB over Big Media’s refusal to negotiate during the writers strike. And now another strike could be looming because the same employers won’t negotiate with the Screen Actors Guild which belongs to the AFL-CIO. Stay tuned.
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