Allegations of a union “shakedown” and “extortion” in the hallway of a Las Vegas hotel have been leveled against leaders of an IATSE local in New Orleans. The explosive charges, which only now have come to light, were made by IATSE Sound Local 695 business agent Jim Osburn at a hearing shortly before his North Hollywood-based union was placed into trusteeship in February. Osburn’s local was put on trial after leaders of Studio Mechanics Local 478 in Louisiana accused him of obstructing their efforts to collect so-called “assessments” on the wages of out-of-state workers who film in Louisiana. Typically, the local takes a 3% cut of their wages, which is permitted under the IATSE’s constitution and by-laws.
Osburn, who has headed Local 695 on and off for most of the past 40 years, denied the obstruction charges and leveled some allegations of his own at a January hearing about the case. According to a 207-page transcript of the hearing, Osburn said leaders of the Louisiana local tried to get him to collect on a rather unusual assessment they’d levied against a Local 695 sound mixer named Mark Weber – not for work Weber had done in Louisiana but for a job they’d prevented him from getting in the first place.
In 2009, Weber had gone to New Orleans to interview for a sound mixing job on the film Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans. After meeting with the film’s director, Werner Herzog, the producers agreed to hire him. But there was a problem: Weber had failed to obtain a work permit from the Louisiana local, and he’d failed to pay an assessment the last time he’d worked there. Local 478 business agent Michael McHugh informed the producers of the problem, and they in turn told Weber to straighten it out. Weber paid his past-due assessment, but the leaders of the Louisiana local still wouldn’t issue him a work permit or allow him to join their local. Instead, they told him — on threat of being expelled from IATSE — not to take the job. When he refused, they persuaded the producers not to hire him and to hire a local sound mixer instead. Weber then filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, which, after a two-day hearing, ruled that the Louisiana local had “attempted to cause and caused the employer to withdraw its offer of employment to Weber” in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
The NLRB also found that the local’s leaders “engaged in unfair labor practices” when they told Weber to turn down the job, “threatening him with expulsion from IATSE” if he took the job. In its ruling the NLRB ordered the Louisiana local to make Weber whole “for any loss of earnings” he would have received if they hadn’t improperly interfered with his efforts to get the job.
Per the order of the NLRB, the Louisiana local paid him more than $17,000, but it then turned around and tried to charge him a 3% assessment on the award they’d just paid him for work they wouldn’t let him do. When Weber refused to pay that $516.20 assessment, three leaders of the Louisiana local cornered Osburn in the hallway of a Las Vegas hotel and allegedly demanded that he collect the money for them. Osburn refused, telling them that he would not act as their “collection agency” on this “fraudulent” assessment. The confrontation took place in January 2011, just outside the room where the IATSE was holding its mid-winter Executive Board meeting at the Paris Hotel. In a deposition, McHugh stated that he and Chandra Miller, Local 478’s secretary-treasurer, and Phil LoCicero, the local’s president, approached Osburn in the hallway and “as a courtesy” handed him the charges they were going to file against Weber for nonpayment of his assessment on the fine the Louisiana local had been ordered to pay him.
“After receiving a copy of the charges against Mr. Weber,” McHugh said in his deposition, “business agent Osburn expressed his position that he believed work assessments to be extortion and the International had better do something to change the dues system or they – the International – were liable to be found guilty of racketeering by the U.S. courts and/or Labor Board.”
During the hearing of Local 478’s charges, Osburn flatly denied he ever told anyone that the assessments were unlawful. Rather, he objected to taking part in a “shakedown” by the Louisiana local in its attempt to collect an assessment on an award the NLRB had ordered the Louisiana local to pay for work they had prevented one of his members from getting. “In our conversation in the Paris Hotel,” Osburn said at the hearing, “what I was being asked to do was to contact Mark Weber and tell him to pay the assessment for the amount of the award that the NLRB cited against Local 478. And as soon as that happened, I said: ‘Wait a second. I can’t do that. I need more facts here. You can’t ask me to go out and ask a member who’s a recipient of an NLRB award and shake him down for an assessment. Are you crazy?’”
During the hearing, Osburn asked Local 478’s Miller – who had filed the original charges against the Sound Local – about how she had come to assess Weber for the NLRB award her local had been forced to pay him for its unlawful interference. “I was directed by in-house counsel,” she testified, “that because he earned wages in the jurisdiction, he was retroactively paid wages for the entire run of that show under the NLRB ruling, that I should invoice him for the 3% work assessment for those wages.”
In the end, however, the hearing officer ruled against the Sound Local, and IATSE President Matthew Loeb came to the local’s offices in North Hollywood personally and placed it into trusteeship. “As you may now be aware,” Loeb wrote in a letter to the local’s members, “the IATSE has placed Local 695 into trusteeship. This decision was the result of a hearing held Jan. 7, 2014. … The evidence presented at this hearing makes it clear that the principal officers of Local 695 are committed to a course of reckless action. They fail to grasp the importance of the International constitution, they fail to understand what it means to be part of this International union, and they fail to understand the purpose of this International. The record is replete with instance after instance of Local 695 and its officers’ willful disregard for, and mockery of, the International constitution.”
Osburn could not be reached for comment, trustees of Sound Local 695 declined comment, and calls to Loeb and McHugh were not returned.
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