Free Film School #133: The Teamsters Union

Bonjour classe! Welcome to your favorite film school of all, CraveOnline‘s Free Film School. Our motto: “Why wear pants?” Today, I’m going to give a very brief lesson on a labor union that has a rich and dubious history as well as an inextricable link to the film industry. I may have to tread lightly, but I’m going to talk about The Teamsters Union.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, more often called The Teamsters Union, is a labor union with about a million and a half members. It is a union that is involved in just about every American and Canadian film production. You’ve probably seen their logo at the end of a movie’s credits. It’s the one with a five-spoked wheel flanked by two horse heads. It’s usually right next to the MPAA logo and the IATSE logo. The Teamsters Union are largely responsible for trucking and for hauling freight for film productions. And while they’re known for trucks, members can work in many other capacities, including public jobs and private ones.

The Teamsters Union has remained in the public eye, however, because of their close union ties to the film industry. Consider for a moment how much physical equipment is needed in your average studio film shoot. How much lumber is needed, how many lights, how many cameras, how much set dressing, how much sheer raw material is required just for a single shot in a big budget movie. Studios don’t necessarily have their own trucks and/or drivers to haul all of that stuff. It’s there that The Hollywood Teamsters Union is called in to help. They’re not just tapped often. The Teamsters Union is a necessary part of most film productions.

To trace the history of The Teamsters Union is to wander into a maze of dull union politics, in-fighting, corruption, exciting scandals, and the infamous disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. Just as they are known for their connection to the film industry, the union is also well-known for their unbelievable amount of corruption decades ago. Indeed, often the word “Teamsters” is still used to heavily imply Mob ties. Way back in the 1920s, the Teamsters were heavily associated with Al Capone, who sought to control unions, collect dues, and make the empire his own. Back in the 1950s, the Union leaders would be still be known for skimming dues, paying off Mob bosses, and manipulating truck routes at the behest of corrupt officials. The Mob seemingly ran the Teamsters for many years. There is a union hall in Washington DC.

Corruption was so widespread, and the presence of the union so wide, that special senate committees had to be formed to investigate the extent of the crimes. This is a fight that has gone on for decades. I would like to put forth that The Teamsters Union, while still enormous, may finally be free of mob corruption, and perhaps serves as a proper union again. Although they have still have their share of illegal maneuverings lasting as long as the late 1980s.

There was a 1992 film called Hoffa, starring Jack Nicholson, about Jimmy Hoffa, perhaps the Union’s most infamous leader. Hoffa was a Union leader who was able to organize an international force better than any of the previous leaders. He would also plunder Teamsters pension funds to fun Mob projects in Las Vegas. Jimmy Hoffa is one of the more notorious criminals in American history, pursued by both Kennedy and Nixon. Hoffa was eventually caught and, in 1967, went to prison. He was not allowed to operate any more unions. He was eventually released. Hoffa famously vanished in 1975, many assuming that he was killed either by the Mob or perhaps even by bitter Teamsters. His missing body is still used as a punchline. The 2005 film Bruce Almighty even made a joke about it.

Despite the corruption he is now known for, many still associate Jimmy Hoffa with the high point of the Union’s history. Indeed, Hoffa’s son has since been a president of the union. Like I said, I’m sure the rampant Mob corruption is no longer an issue.

I could go deeper into their political affiliations and their rivalries. I could talk about the AFL-CIO, and the many dissident schisms inside the Union, but I don’t want to bore you.

The Teamsters don’t dictate where a film will be shot, how much the studio gets paid, and don’t have any sort of creative input into the movies they work on (despite a healthy number of conspiracy theories on the topic). Like I said, they’re mostly just known for hauling freight, a vital and necessary job in the industry. But the Union is, perhaps unfortunately, always going to be associated with organized crime. It just sort of lingers in the public consciousness. So it’s not a very large cognitive leap to perhaps postulate how much corruption may have leaked into the film industry by proxy.

I need to say this: I’m not saying anything libelous here, and I have no proof of any film studio corruption whatsoever. I know of no actual criminal activity on any film production, in fact. This criminal connection of movies to the mob is all based on popular hearsay, undying decades-old rumor, and everyday postulation. One can constantly infer (as so many people do) that the reason studio films tend to cost so much is outright fraud, or perhaps some sort of criminal dealings within. I typically give the studios the benefit of the doubt, and assume that every dollar they spend on a film is accounted for. It’s just some unfortunate history, dead scandals, and a constant close relationship with a Union known for now-stale corruption that has many people looking at the film industry with narrowed eyes.

But, corruption and drama aside, perhaps one can take away this from the film industry’s close and lasting relationship with The Teamsters Union: Films require far more manpower than you perhaps realize, and instilling dozens upon dozens of unions are necessary to protect the hundreds – if not thousands – of workers that break their backs on a single motion picture. You may have noticed that some movies have now begun listing – after the credits – how many hours of work it required to make, and how many jobs it created. The film industry is just that: an industry. Keep the laborers in mind.

Homework for the Week:

Do a little research on The Teamsters Union. How important or union bodies to the film industry. Try to guess how many people worked on the next movie you see. Try to organize a multimillion-dollar production in your head. Whom would you hire? Where would you shoot? Really give some serious thought to the actual physical logistics of a film production. Seems like you’d need a lot of workers unions in the mix, right?  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. 


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