How Boots Riley helped Salt Lake Film Society’s front-of-house staff unionize
“There’s a bunch of us that are organizing to get us paid more. Get some benefits. We could really use your energy to jump things off.”
That’s how Squeeze introduces Cassius to the idea of coming together in union with his coworkers in Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry To Bother You. Sticking together for better wages and benefits is an important theme throughout the movie, as Squeeze leads the workers at the RegalView call center in a strike.
For a group of front-of-house workers at the Salt Lake Film Society, the movie’s union themes inspired them to start an organizing drive of their own, and they got some help from an unexpected source: Sorry To Bother You’s writer and director Boots Riley himself!
The Salt Lake Film Society is Salt Lake City’s hub for independent cinema, and the front-of-house staff are the ticket selling, snack providing gate keepers to audiences looking for inspiration on the big screen. They’re mostly under the age of 30, and all are passionate film lovers. Although many of them have worked at these theaters for years, the jobs have stagnant wages and provide no sick time and no path for advancement. Many employees were attracted to jobs at these theaters by their love for film, but despite their commitment to the organization, workers saw limited opportunity for growth.
So they reached out to the Utah AFL-CIO, who connected them with an organizer from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents people in all kinds of behind-the-scenes jobs in the entertainment industry across North America. Despite representing the people who make movies in Hollywood and the people who work front-of-house in theaters with live shows, movie theater front-of-house staff is largely unrepresented in the United States. But the IATSE doesn’t back down from a challenge.
The organizing drive began as most do, with meetings between shifts at a worker’s house. Since not everybody was able to be there for the first meeting, organizers held back-to-back meetings to be able to reach as many people as possible.
The staff had done the important work before even meeting with an IATSE organizer, so the initial steps were quick. Authorization cards went out to the bargaining unit in December, and by the end of February, more than 80% of people had signed on.
As the final vote approached, nerves and tensions were on the rise. The initial excitement of the organizing had ebbed, and management put on a hard sell against the union, so leaders began to worry that their colleagues would vote no, or not bother to vote at all. It was time to call in some support.
When Boots Riley heard that his movie had inspired an organizing drive at a movie theater, he was excited to do what he could to support. He recorded a video message of support for the workers.
“So much of what you do is getting stories to people,” Riley said in his video message. “And the thing about what happens when people come together and fight, especially when they do that on the job, is it starts to tell a story to other people…it’s about the story that is being told to millions of other people that will finding out about what you are doing….What you’re doing is very important and I’m inspired by you.”
Soon thereafter, the Executive Board of IATSE Local 868 Treasurers and Ticketsellers, a union of front-of-house workers at live event theaters in Washington, DC also sent a letter and video message of support for the Salt Lake Film Society crew. “I recently went through the same organizing process that you are now enduring,” said Jeffrey Higgins, a Local 868 member. “But I can tell you with certainty that it is worth it, every bit of it. You are giving yourselves, and those who work with you in the future, a voice, something each and every one of us deserves in our work. So keep it up, and good luck with the election!”
These messages of solidarity helped keep up the momentum, and in April, the front-of-house staff at the Salt Lake Film Society voted overwhelmingly to join together in union!
Now the next stage begins: the staff is about to start negotiating for their first contract. To help show management that they came together because they care deeply about their jobs and the theaters where they work, the workers recently sent an open letter to management.
“This idea sprouted through our shared love of Salt Lake Film Society,” they wrote. “In pursuing this endeavor, we hope to find ways to improve the organization for both patrons and employees…This organization and its mission are very precious to us. We feel inspired by film, and the excitement we feel in sharing film with the community contributes to our desire to better the workplace of the Salt Lake Film Society.”
Congratulations to the workers at the Salt Lake Film Society, and welcome to the IATSE family!