Former IATSE Sound Local 695 business agent Jim Osburn is taking his fight against IATSE president Matt Loeb all the way to the Supreme Court, accusing Loeb of “stifling dissent” through “dictatorial tactics.” Loeb placed the Sound Local into trusteeship in February 2014 and removed Osburn from office just weeks after Osburn had been re-elected to a post he’d held on and off for nearly 30 years.
Osburn’s 42-page petition for a writ of certiorari (read it here), written by his attorney Sunny Wise, asks the high court to decide “whether stifling robust dissent without a true indicia of due process is tolerable when an International President cleverly imposes and quickly lifts a trusteeship after permanently removing only dissenting leaders from office.”
Two of the dissenters were Osburn and his longtime partner, Elizabeth Alvarez, the local’s former recording secretary, who also is a petitioner in the case.
Osburn’s blistering attack on Loeb asks the Supreme Court to overturn a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling (read it here), which had affirmed a lower court’s granting of summary judgment that dismissed a lawsuit he’d brought that accused Loeb of failing to follow the union’s constitution when he imposed a trusteeship on the Sound Local, which was lifted in January 2015 – without returning Osburn and Alvarez to their posts. The petition was filed last month, and attorneys for Loeb and IATSE have until March 21 to respond.
“More than 80 years ago,” the petition states, IATSE “was targeted by the federal government because of mob infiltration at its highest office, namely the International Presidency. This case depicts the latest attempt by that same parent labor organization to utilize a mob-mentality of threats and intimidation to bypass, if not nullify completely, the protections passed by Congress in the 1950s to ensure democratic principles governed organized labor.”
That reference was to the Chicago Mafia’s takeover of IATSE in 1935, when IATSE president George Browne and his mobbed-up West Coast representative, Willie Bioff, began extorting millions of dollars from the Hollywood studios in return for labor peace, and kicking back 50% of their take to Frank Nitti, who was then running the Chicago syndicate. The case brought several convictions of high-ranking mobsters. Bioff, who turned state’s witness, later was killed by a car bomb outside his home in Las Vegas.
The present case stems from a long-running feud Osburn had with several IATSE Studio Mechanics Locals (SMLs) scattered across the country. Sound teams who travel out of state have to pay an “assessment fee” ranging from 3%-5% of their gross earnings to SMLs when they’re brought to work in their jurisdictions. That’s because the Sound Local’s jurisdiction is largely limited to Los Angeles – unlike IATSE’s Cinematographers, Editors and Art Directors guilds, which have national jurisdictions.
“The genesis of Loeb’s desire to stymie the dissent,” the petition states, is Loeb’s claim that Osburn allegedly caused Local 695 members to not pay dues obligations to SMLs.” Osburn, who denies that allegation, insists instead that Loeb and the SMLs “did not want to be scrutinized regarding the sum of monies being demanded by SMLs.”
Osburn’s battle against the SMLs came to a head in 2009, when leaders of New Orleans Studio Mechanics Local 478 tried to force a sound mixing member of Sound Local 695 who had come there to work on a Werner Herzog movie to pay an assessment even though they’d prohibited him from getting the job. And when the sound mixer filed a complaint with the NLRB, which resulted in Local 478 being ordered to pay him more than $17,000 for denying him the job, its leaders tried to get Osburn to make him pay them a 3% assessment on his $17,000 NLRB award. But Osburn refused, calling it “extortion” and a “shakedown.”
Another Sound Local member who went to work in New Orleans claimed to have received threats from a Local 478 leader, and then, according to the petition, “moved his family back to California, fearing for their safety due to the SML’s actions.”
“He left his work in New Orleans because he feared for his life. His family was threatened,” Osburn said in his depo. “It scared him. When he finally came in and met with us, he said, ‘I’m scared to death of these people.’”
“I don’t assume that he was threatened,” Loeb said in his deposition. “His perception of what was said to him was his own and I have no judgment on that, but I don’t believe he was threatened.”
Local 478 officials then brought charges against Osburn, and a trial board found him guilty of advising his members not to pay assessments to Studio Mechanics locals 209 in Cleveland and 478 in New Orleans, and by doing so, having “blatantly disregarded the IA Constitution; interfered with the International’s efforts to enforce its Constitution; encouraged officers and members to ignore the IA Constitution and Bylaws; undermined the authority and office of the International; and acted in a manner detrimental to the advancement of the purposes of the International.”
Osburn, whose membership was suspended for a year but is now a member in good standing, vehemently denied the allegations, claiming in his petition that the union hearing was a “kangaroo court” and accusing Loeb of “using his own brand of justice” to “silence” dissent. One of the hearing officers, handpicked by Loeb, was Scott Harbinson, the IATSE international rep to whom the sound mixer in New Orleans had brought his complaint in the first place. “I thought Scott would be a suitable hearing officer and would be fair and open-minded,” Loeb said in his 2016 deposition.
Loeb showed up in person at the Sound Local’s offices in North Hollywood on February 24, 2014, to place the local into trusteeship. He was accompanied by several IATSE officials and four LAPD officers. “This looked like a SWAT operation,” Osburn said in his deposition. “I had an office of employees that were very disturbed. Some were crying. They were shook up.”
Loeb then walked through the office as Mike Miller, IATSE vice president and West Coast representative, handed out a piece of paper to the staff telling them to immediately vacate the office.
“I confronted the International President,” Osburn said in his depo. “I said, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not following the constitution and by-laws.’
“And his response was, ‘I’m the President.’”
Loeb has served as International President since July 31, 2008, when he was unanimously elected by the IATSE General Executive Board. He has been re-elected without opposition at every quadrennial IATSE convention since – in 2009, 2013 and in 2017, when, for the first time, reporters were not allowed to attend. “It’s a new policy, but it will be the standing policy from now on,” an IA spokesperson said. His slate of running mates – known as “Matt’s Team” – also have been re-elected, without opposition, at every convention since 2009. They include the union’s entire General Executive Board, which consists of the general secretary-treasurer, 13 vice presidents, three trustees and the delegate to the Canadian Labor Congress.
Later, Osburn asked Loeb why he was handling the takeover of Local 695 in such a heavy-handed manner. “I cannot believe that you’re doing this,” Osburn said in his depo. “This is not a friendly way to do things. And he responded: “‘I am not your friend. I’ve never been your friend. I’m not your friend now, and I’ve never liked you.’”
In upholding the District Court’s ruling that the removal of Osburn and Alvarez from office was legal and did not violate their rights of free speech – the Circuit Court said “a union’s interpretation of its own constitution is entitled to deference” and cited a 9th Circuit ruling that held that, “Absent bad faith or special circumstances, an interpretation of a union constitution by union officials, as well as interpretations of the union’s rules and regulations, should not be disturbed by the court.”
“IATSE’s interpretation of its constitution is reasonable,” the appeals court found, “and Appellants have not cited any persuasive evidence of bad faith or special circumstances in the record.”
Osburn and Alvarez, however, argue that the record of their union trial board hearings are replete with instances of bias and violations of the union’s constitution and bylaws. They’re hoping that the Supreme Court will hear their case and remand it to a jury trial. But their odds are long: only about 1% of petitions for writs of certiorari are ever granted for a full hearing before the Supreme Court.
Their petition states that if they are “deprived of their day in court, every parent labor organization throughout America could nullify the ballot box by simply issuing letters removing everyone from office and then reinstating staff whose views and associations are compatible with the parent organization.
“Also implicated,” the writ states, “are national policies protecting members of Labor Unions who seek to question discriminatory assessments and thug tactics threatening one’s pursuit of ‘life, liberty and happiness.’”
Deadline reached out to David A. Rosenfeld, the attorney handling the case for Loeb and IATSE, but has yet to receive a response.