How Hollywood Unions Wield “Do Not Work” Orders Against Employers

How Hollywood Unions Wield “Do Not Work” Orders Against Employers

In April 2021, in the aftermath of The Hollywood Reporter’s investigation of megaproducer Scott Rudin’s allegedly abusive behavior toward former employees, some in the theater community responded by making a request of Actors’ Equity: Put Rudin on the do-not-work list.

The idea was simple: Members of the theater actors’ and stage managers’ union cannot work with employers who are on the union’s do-not-work list — if they do, they can face such consequences as losing their membership — and some thought the move might protect workers. But later that month, Equity responded to these calls by saying that Rudin was at that time a producing member of the Broadway League, had agreed to adhere to Equity contracts, and clarifying that Equity generally uses the list to notify members of “the status of nonunion productions.” (Rudin resigned from the League later that month, and is not now on the do-not-work list. According to Equity’s communications manager, David Levy, the list is an “organizing tool” and Rudin is not, to his knowledge, producing anything for the stage at the moment, so there is nothing to organize.)

Do-not-work lists, versions of which exist at several major Hollywood unions, occasionally enter the news cycle, usually when a notable producer or production is flagged by a union. But they can generate confusion because they exist in bespoke forms at these unions and can be triggered by different events, even though in most cases they are a key tool unions employ to publicly pressure employers.

At Actors’ Equity, SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild, do-not-work lists and notices can shine a spotlight on certain nonunion producers, companies or productions and may help persuade these employers to bargain and become a signatory; they can also highlight signatory employers that have fallen out of good standing with the union or push them to make good after a perceived infraction. (At all three of these unions, members are already barred from working with employers or projects within the union’s jurisdiction without a union contract.)

That kind of public boycott can be effective in an industry where reputation is so prized, where unions have built up a significant presence and workers have many potential employers to choose from.

The Writers Guild and Actors’ Equity both maintain publicly accessible versions of do-not-work lists that can highlight employers that refused to negotiate with the union, those with whom contract negotiations broke down and those who, in the union’s view, infringed on a contract in some way. The Writers Guild’s “Strike/Unfair list” (East and West have slightly separate lists but share some list information) also may point to producers or companies that in the union’s view engaged in conduct “violative of the National Labor Relations Act or other laws designed to protect the rights of writers,” the WGA East says on its website.

Not participating in the grievance and arbitration process, not adhering to an arbitration award or not posting a bond “when required” can all land an employer on the WGA’s list, writes Kathy Christovich, assistant general counsel at the WGA West, in an email.

The list features producers including Emmett/Furla Oasis Films, run by producers Randall Emmett and George Furla, and producers behind Syfy’s former show Z Nation. (Emmett/Furla Oasis Films declined to comment on the matter; a lawyer for Z Nation producer The Asylum said the company is pursuing pending litigation and that all WGA members were paid “in full,” with “millions” paid in residuals and pension and health contributions.)

“Production companies need Guild writers to create the content for their movies and series, so when a company runs afoul of its [Minimum Basic Agreement] obligations, refuses to bargain or otherwise acts unfairly, the strike list is a powerful tool that takes away that company’s ability to hire from the WGA labor pool,” Christovich says in a statement. “We use the strike list as a means of ensuring that companies treat writers fairly and abide by the terms of our collective bargaining agreement.”

The Actors’ Equity list generally signals which employers the union attempted to get onto a contract without the two sides reaching an agreement: Tyler Perry (for his stage plays) and Marvel Universe Live! and Disney on Ice producers Feld Entertainment are still on the list. (Perry declined comment; Feld did not reply to a request for comment.) According to Actors’ Equity’s mobilization director Stefanie Frey, “The end goal is always to have as many good-paying, safe union jobs as possible. And the Do Not Work List helps us keep track of employers that are choosing other priorities while also hopefully nudging them to do the right thing and come to the table with a proper and fair offer for our members.”

Rather than maintain a list, SAG-AFTRA circulates individual “Do Not Work” notices on its website generally regarding particular productions that didn’t sign a union agreement or present safety concerns, in the union’s view. “Failure to become signatory to the appropriate agreement, including failure to provide appropriate financial assurances” — basically, a form of security deposit — “is a common cause of DNW orders,” the union’s chief contracts officer, Ray Rodriguez, writes in an email. Safety reasons that might provoke a notice include extreme weather and, more recently, failure to adhere to COVID protocols. This was allegedly the case on the John Malkovich-Martin Lawrence film Mindcage, which was handed a do-not-work notice for failing to show “compliance with SAG-AFTRA’s required COVID-19 safety standards and protocols for a safe set” in August; the notice was rescinded two days later. (Mindcage producers did not respond to a request for comment.)

It’s not uncommon for productions to react quickly to the notice, according to Rodriguez, who writes, “Most productions that are subject to DNW orders resolve the underlying issues within a day or two, and the notices are thereafter rescinded.”

While IATSE does not maintain a do-not-work list, it has in the past, in rare cases, declared employers to be “unfair” and prohibited members from working for those productions or production companies, a significant step for a union that does not typically require their members work only on union projects. A spokesperson for the union writes in an email that a labor dispute is always a cause for an “unfair” declaration, even if “not all labor disputes necessarily trigger an ‘unfair’ declaration from the union.” They add, “It’s one of many tools in our arsenal.” Unfair declarations are “typically lifted when a labor dispute concludes,” the spokesperson writes.

Representatives from the Directors Guild and Teamsters Local 399, which do not deploy public do-not-work lists or notices, say the unions use internal systems to flag particular employers to members. In a statement, a DGA spokesperson says that the Guild employs “a series of extensive procedures to ensure that projects can meet their obligations under our collective bargaining agreements prior to clearing our members for work,” and that members cannot work on projects that aren’t cleared. (Guild members are also barred from working on nonunion projects.) Local 399 requires that members report their latest project to the union, and union staff will tell them if an employer is a signatory or if the project has a one-off deal with the union. According to the Local’s recording secretary, Lindsay Dougherty, when workers are informed a project does not have a union contract, “usually they’re not going to want to go to work [on that project],” though there are no formal penalties from the union. The union also keeps track of producers associated with past projects, she says, and if the union has taken issue with their labor practices, “we will notify the department head, either the coordinator or captain on that project; in some cases it could be a location manager or a casting director.” If a project is allegedly violating a law or safety regulation, Dougherty says Local 399 is in communication with FilmLA and the project could get their permits pulled.

THR reached out to numerous employers who have been added to entertainment unions’ do-not-work lists or hit with related notices to hear their perspective. While some did not respond, one producer who is on the WGA’s “Strike/Unfair” list requested anonymity and would not provide specific details about their situation because they are considering litigation. However, they did say they received “no prior warning, no due process, no hearing” before being added to the list and compared it to be being declared “guilty until proven otherwise.”

When it comes to trends in do-not-work orders, independent productions or companies can commonly show up on some lists or be the subjects of notices. But having a do-not-work notice or list placement rescinded doesn’t necessarily lead to a resolution of all labor issues. In November, THR reported that some crewmembers for the indie film The Tiger Rising, released theatrically in January, said they were then still owed tens of thousands in unpaid benefits and — despite SAG-AFTRA tagging the film with a do-not-work notice before production began, which was later rescinded — entertainment unions continue to work with the producers on separate projects. The unions declined to comment for that story and one Tiger Rising producer said they were working with unions to resolve “any outstanding issues.”

For a “strong” union, just putting an employer on a do-not-work list may help achieve their aims, says Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of California, Santa Barbara history professor who also is the director of the school’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy. And do-not-work lists or notices may be especially effective for labor groups at present, he adds: “Today, for whatever reason, we have a high degree of approval of unionism just as a general idea. So that would mean that the naming and shaming and all of that would have a particular potency to it that it didn’t have 10 or 12 years ago.”

A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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