The Trial Of Haskell Wexler: Before His Death, The Great Cinematographer Stood Accused By His Union


Haskell Wexler, the two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, fought for the rights of working men and women his entire life. But before he died last December, he was brought up on charges by his own union in the last big fight of his life – for safety on the set. This is the untold story of a Hollywood legend’s battle against the union he loved to make the industry a safer place to work.

“Brother Wexler,” the letter from the Cinematographers Guild began. “You are hereby notified that charges have been filed against you before the Trial Committee, and Oct. 20, 2015, has been fixed for your trial before the Trial Committee.”

His crime – for which he could be kicked out of the union he’d belonged to for more than 60 years – was that he’d posted the proceedings of a union membership meeting on an unlisted YouTube account, meaning that only those who knew the account could view it. The video had been shot by the Cinematographers Guild, and streamed live for its members to see. Wexler, however, was accused of making it available for anyone to see – including employers – which was against the union’s constitution and bylaws.

During that meeting, Wexler tried to convince the union’s leaders – as he had many times before – to honor their promise to fight against the industry’s brutally long workdays, where 15- and 16-hour days are not uncommon. He saw it as a quality of life issue, and a safety issue as well.

“I believe it is my obligation and the obligation of every director of photography to oppose a practice that compromises our creative ability as well as the health and well-being of every member of the crew,” he said at the membership meeting.

IATSE Cinematographers Guild Local 600 Camera Guild

Wexler reminded union leaders that the guild’s parent union – the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – had at its last convention unanimously adopted a resolution he’d championed calling on the industry to address the issue. “There exists indisputable evidence from scientific, medical and empirical studies linking sleep deprivation and fatigue to critical safety and health hazards,” the resolution stated. “This is a critical issue of health, safety and life that despite efforts has yet to be treated in a substantive way.”

The resolution noted that “overtime was created as a deterrent to excessive hours, not merely as a supplement to income,” and stressing that “our health and safety should be beyond compromise,” concluded by recommending that “efforts be made to require all signatory companies to recognize fatigue as a health and safety hazard.”

The AFL-CIO, the IATSE’s parent union, had also found that “long hours of work and the way work is organized are emerging as major health and safety issues affecting workers across many industries and occupations.”

And yet nothing had been done about it. In fact, in Hollywood, the hours just kept getting longer, because the industry doesn’t really care about hours; it cares about days. Long hours can be tolerated as long as projects don’t go over schedule, because so many other projects are dependent upon the actors, directors and other key personnel finishing up on time so they can be available for the start dates of their next shows. It’s a patchwork of scheduling that can be thrown out of whack – like passenger flights when a single airport shuts down – when one film goes over schedule.

At that membership meeting in February 2015, union leaders listened politely as Wexler prattled on and on – way past his allotted five minutes – about the health and safety and quality of life issues that were being undermined by excessive hours. They listened, but they wouldn’t do anything about it.

But when they found out that he’d posted the video of their meeting on YouTube, they took action, swift and decisive, threatening to kick him out of the union.

The dangers of long hours had been Wexler’s cause célèbre ever since camera assistant Brent Hershman was killed in 1997 when he fell asleep at the wheel and slammed his car into a utility pole while driving home from a job after working a 19-hour day – which had been preceded by four 15-hour days.

After Hershman’s death, Wexler took out an ad in Variety calling for the “humane treatment of humans,” and a petition campaign was launched to lobby for “Brent’s Rule” – a maximum 14-hour workday. SAG endorsed it and the DGA appointed a committee to look into it, but nothing much came of it.

So Wexler did what he did best – he made a film about it. It was called Who Needs Sleep? – a documentary about his quest to find out why Hollywood insists on such long hours; and why the town’s unions and management – and the government agencies that are supposed to protect the safety and welfare of workers – have done nothing to stop it.

“You know as well as I do that most of the time, you’re working uncivilized hours,” the late producer Richard Zanuck says in the 2006 film. “There is no such thing as civilized hours in the motion picture business.”

“When we were shooting the Lethal Weapon series,” director Richard Donner says in the film, “it had gotten so bad, people working a minimum of 14 hours and then driving home two or three hours and then turning around and driving two or three hours, that we had three or four major automobile accidents.”

Several union leaders were also interviewed in the film – including George Dibie, who was then president of the guild; Bruce Doering, the guild’s executive director; and IATSE International president Tommy Short – who all hated it because it showed them voicing support for shorter hours but doing nothing about it.

At a January 2015 executive board meeting, when Wexler offered to give board members a copy of the film so they could see the history of the issue, Steven Poster, who by then had become guild president, ruled him out of order and angrily gaveled him to silence.

“This is a union-busting movie,” Poster said. “It libels me, it libels George Dibie, it libels Bruce (Doering), and it libels Tom Short.”

“You have to have been there,” Wexler later observed, “to realize how loud and angry and enraged Poster was about the film as he banged on the gavel.”

While making the film, Wexler was nearly killed himself when he fell asleep at the wheel while driving home after a 14-hour workday. “I knew I was tired, but I opened the windows and played the radio, confident I could stay awake,” he later recalled. But he was wrong; he dozed off and rolled his car. The next thing he knew, paramedics were tending to him inside his ’87 El Camino, where he hung upside down by his seatbelt. “You think he’s alive?” one asked the other.

Everyone in the industry knew that long hours were a problem, but few knew how to address it. “Evidently, there’s some status quo out there,” former DGA president Gil Cates told Wexler in the film. “There’s some exception to change. I just don’t get it, Haskell. I don’t know what it is.”

Tom Hanks had a suggestion, though. “If I was going to put together the perfect way in order to make a movie,” he says in the film, “I think it’s five-and-a-half hours of work and then an hour for lunch and then another five-and-a-half hours for work — and then everyone goes home on the tick of the clock.”

Wexler’s own proposal was for a 12-hour day, and he launched a campaign called 12 On 12 Off to rally support for it. But when he tried to place an ad for it in the Cinematographers Guild’s official magazine, the union refused to print it.

“I was told that the magazine is on ‘high alert’ on this subject of workplace safety, especially if it comes from me!” he wrote. “They say the magazine doesn’t want to deal with this ‘political football’ even though it is an official IATSE resolution.”

He’d been tackling controversial issues for decades, having come by his leftist leanings at an early age. Growing up during the Great Depression in a liberal household on the Westside of Chicago, he attended the progressive Francis Parker School and worked as a kid at The Hull House, the famed settlement house for immigrants and the center of a social reform movement that continues to this day.

A pacifist from an early age, his father, a follower of Eugene V. Debs – the radical union leader and five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate – had served in World War I and taught him that “it was just a war for the munitions-makers.”

His father owned a manufacturing company that made fancy chairs – including the ones the justices sat on in the U.S. Supreme Court. And when his father’s workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions, Haskell took the side of the strikers.

An avid photographer, even as a kid, he took his camera with him when his family visited Mussolini’s Italy and took pictures of the dictator’s grand palace, the Palazzo Venezia. A few years later, he put his pacifist leanings aside when he tried to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against fascists in the Spanish Civil War, but was turned away because he was too young – 15. He later tried to join the Canadian Air Force to fight the Nazis, but was turned away because he was color blind – which somehow didn’t prevent him from later becoming one of the greatest cinematographers of all time.

So he joined the Merchant Marines, and his ship was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine on November 13, 1942. Wounded, he spent two harrowing weeks in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean before making land in South Africa, where he and his surviving shipmates were taken in and cared for by primitive Pondo tribesmen.

Haskell Wexler, left, in a press conference about the making of the Weather Underground movie
Haskell Wexler in a 1975 press conference about the making of “Underground.” REX/Shutterstock

After the war, he joined IATSE Camera Local 666 in Chicago, and began a lifetime of documenting dissent and telling the stories of trouble-makers. His documentary The Bus chronicled the famed 1963 March on Washington, and in the spring of 1975, he followed Jane Fonda around in Vietnam to document the effects of the war in Introduction To The Enemy. A year later, in Underground, he documented the radical Weather Underground. It was the kind of work that earned him a voluminous FBI file.

Many of his feature films also explored social issues and the free-thinkers who pressed for change – like Matewan, about union organizing in a coal mining town, and Bound For Glory, about folk legend Woody Guthrie, whose old guitar was inscribed with the words: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Bound For Glory won Wexler his second Oscar in 1977, 10 years after his first win for Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

Wexler’s groundbreaking 1969 film Medium Cool also made use of his documentary skills to tell a story of civil unrest and moral ambiguity set against backdrop of the calamitous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And it was there in Chicago, while shooting Medium Cool in Lincoln Park, that he was introduced to a young camera operator named Steven Poster, who would later become his rival for the leadership of the Cinematographers Guild – and who in 2015, as the guild’s president, would take cognizance of the charges that sought to expel him from the union for putting a video of membership meeting on an unlisted YouTube account.

He’d had trouble with the Cinematographer’s Guild in Los Angeles for years – back when it was known as IATSE Camera Local 659. In 1958, he was hired as the director of cinematography on a low-budget film called Stakeout On Dope Street that would be filming in L.A. He’d been a member of Chicago’s Camera Local 666 since 1947, but the local wouldn’t let him transfer, so he shot the film under a fake name – Mark Jeffrey – the first names of his sons.

His battles with the union would continue for decades, always fighting to make it a more democratic union. In 2004, he was elected 2nd vice president, leading a slate – called the Coalition for a Democratic Union – from which assistant cameraman Gary Dunham was elected president. Two years later, however, Dunham was ousted from office after running afoul of IATSE international president Short, the parent union’s autocratic ruler. Dunham, who had been vocal in his opposition to a new contract Short had negotiated, was put on trial, and after a two-day hearing, he was ousted by the local’s executive board for “exceeding the limits of authority of his office.” Wexler was critical of the way Dunham was removed from office

Steven Poster
Steven Poster

In 2007, the executive board appointed a new president — it would be Poster. Later that year, Wexler challenged Poster for the presidency, and was soundly defeated.

In 2010, Wexler ran for the executive board, but the guild’s election committee ruled him ineligible under a new rule that had been adopted that required candidates to have worked a minimum of 120 days under the guild’s contract during the previous three years. He was one of the most recognized names in cinematography the world over, but they wouldn’t let him run for guild office. “Despite my countless years of dedication and experience,” Wexler wrote at the time, “I have been unceremoniously tossed aside because I now do not work as many days per year as I once did.”

He was still working as a cinematographer on documentaries, including ones about the Occupy Movement, but they weren’t covered by guild contracts, as few such documentaries are.

Wexler appealed the ruling to the U.S. Department of Labor, which in 2011 ruled that the local had improperly disqualified him. And when the election was re-run, he won a seat on the board, and was serving on it when the charges were brought against him shortly before his death.

The charges, which have not been made public until now, were filed on June 19, 2015, by Alan Gitlin, who was then the guild’s national secretary-treasurer. “On May 24, 2015,” Gitlin wrote in his affidavit of charges, “I received an email communication from Local 600 member and national executive board member Haskell Wexler. In this email, I learned that Brother Wexler had caused to be made, or otherwise obtained a recording of a streaming video of the Local 600 general membership meeting that had been held on Feb. 28, 2015. Brother Wexler edited this video and placed it on the public website YouTube. Brother Wexler edited the original three-and-a-half hour video down to eleven sections, according to topic, identifying and showing the face and comments of 34 different Local 600 members. The email of April 24 contained links to these posted videos. By these acts Brother Wexler exposed to the public the inner workings of that confidential Local 600 meeting, a violation of Local 600 Bylaws.”

And as the guild’s constitution and bylaws note, “A member of this Guild can be fined, suspended or expelled from membership for breaking the laws of this Guild, or of the International Alliance pursuant to the procedure set forth in this Constitution and Bylaws.”

A month earlier, the guild’s lawyers sent Wexler a letter demanding that he remove the video from YouTube. “The audio and video images of that meeting were confidential communications between members of Local 600,” wrote guild attorney David Adelstein. “Your posting on YouTube has made them available to the general public, including representatives of producers with whom the union negotiates collective bargaining agreements, and producers against whom the union is forced to organize to secure rights for our members. The material you posted included discussion about topics that were some of our bargaining priorities, matters which the members of Local 600 expect to be kept confidential from these producers.”

“The audio and video images you posted are the property of Local 600,” the lawyer continued. “You have published these audio and video images to the public without the permission of Local 600. The elected officers and staff of Local 600 did not authorize you to publish these images…You have violated the constitution and bylaws of Local 600 by posting these audio and video images from the meeting to the general public, including producers, via YouTube.”

Wexler removed the videos from YouTube, but the union still moved to prosecute him, setting a trial date for October 20, 2015. The trial was later moved to January 19, 2016, but by that time, Wexler had already died – on December 27, 2015. He was 93.

After his death, Poster issued a statement:

“On behalf of the International Cinematographers Guild and me, we are deeply saddened by the death of one of our most esteemed board members, Haskell Wexler,” he said. “Haskell’s cinematography has always been an inspiration to so many of us not only in the guild, but in the entire industry. His steady focus on safety over the years further demonstrates his commitment to the welfare of the crew and our industry.

I was first introduced to Haskell on the set of Medium Cool in Chicago’s Lincoln Park in 1969. It was a day I will always remember – he was one of the greats. He and I went on to have many discussions over the years about cinematography and about the role of the union. Although he had his differences with the guild over the years, we admired his dedication and passion to be an instrument for social change.”

Shortly thereafter, Poster sent Wexler’s widow, actress Rita Taggart-Wexler, a letter informing her that the charges against her late husband had been withdrawn. But she would have none of that; she wanted to defend his honor; she wanted to trial to proceed.

“Fellow workers,” she wrote in a January 14, 2016, email to the members of the local’s executive board. “I need your help! As you may be aware, charges were filed against my husband, Haskell Wexler, by secretary-treasurer Alan Gitlin; Steven Poster took cognizance of the charges and a trial had been set. It was Haskell’s request that I, his wife, proceed in defending against the charges brought against him by Alan Gitlin. The letter I received from Steven Poster withdrawing the charges in honor of Haskell’s legacy goes against that very legacy.

“The local and the International bylaws state that charges filed ‘shall not be withdrawn unless the member accused shall consent to withdrawal.’ Haskell wanted to fact the charges, and in his honor, it is my honor to proceed.

“I am reaching out for your assistance. Haskell should be found not guilty and fully exonerated. Haskell was falsely accused of publicly posting union business to YouTube. In fact, all he did was to upload unlisted videos to YouTube of excerpts of the 600 membership meeting and share the unlisted URL’s with fellow members of Local 600 who had every right to see them. These video excerpts were immediately removed at the union’s request, per the May 11, 2015, letter and email from David Adelstein sent to Haskell. Please contact me with any ideas you have for proceeding.”

But there would be no trial, no proceeding. Just a mean letter to Wexler’s widow from national executive board member Dave Satin, who accused her of committing a “federal crime” for using her late husband’s email account to send her letter to the board members asking them for their help to proceed with the trial.

“Oh for God sake stop this nonsense,” he wrote in response to her email. “I have served on the Local 600 executive board for the last three years and have had to endure eight attempts by your late-husband to derail the agenda in the name of quality of life. Stop this now. Haskell’s activism and disrespect for the authority of the officers and board members may have been relevant in the 1960s, but it is irrelevant and counterproductive in the 21st Century.

“Out of respect for Haskell and his legacy, I never said anything during the national executive board meetings about his faulty and incomplete understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order, or how he manipulated other less competent members of the national executive board to do his bidding, but I assure you that I have no need to hold back now.

“You are not a member of Local 600 and you hold no standing with the local or right to interfere in its business. Leave it alone and accept this gift from president Poster and the offices in honor of your late-husband’s legacy and accomplishments, and don’t ever send anything to us using your late-husband’s email address again.

“Furthermore, you are in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which states: Hacking an email account is a federal crime.”

Contacted by Deadline, Satin said: “My understanding of the rules is that when a person dies, any charges that may have been in progress are ended. That’s all I have to say.”

So far, no criminal charges have been brought against her for using her dead husband’s email account.

A spokesman for the guild said that the whole matter has been dropped. “There is no comment on it,” he said. “That’s in the past now and it’s been dropped. There’s nothing active or pending now. There’s no news here.”

Wexler, in the last days of his life, took the charges against him in stride, his wife said, as was his way. But she still wants the guild to exonerate him, and then do something to put an end to the industry’s dangerously long hours.

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