The coronavirus has forced millions into unemployment, with many wondering what their next steps should — or even could — be. For two members of Hollywood, Calif., Local 40, the answer came right from their local union.
|Hollywood, Calif., Local 40 members Bill Brown, left, and Rob Siminoski, right, are switching careers but staying with their union. In fact, Local 40 is training them for the transition.
"We want to be able to provide help to these guys in any way we can," said Business Manager Marc Flynn. "We know how tough it is out there."
Local 40 member Rob Siminoski has been with Universal Studios Hollywood for a decade. The stage manager runs all the theatrical shows at the theme park including The Waterworld Stunt Show and the Harry Potter-themed TriWizard Tournament and Hogwarts School Choir. Stage managers are the show runners and primary point of contact between labor and management during day-to-day operations, scheduling breaks for other union laborers like IATSE, and acting as a liaison between the union technical services department and other nonunion contractors.
But despite his 10 years, he's still got a long way to go before he'll accrue enough seniority to get a full 50 weeks of work every year. During slow months he often has to take outside work managing nonunion touring shows to make ends meet. And now, with the coronavirus shutting down so much of Hollywood, he's decided to make a career change, to something still with Local 40 but with more job security.
"Prior to the outbreak, other Local 40 members had encouraged me to look into the apprenticeship program," Siminoski said. "It seemed like a great way to learn new, transferable skills and get good union benefits."
While the coronavirus slowed the work picture, the apprenticeship moved forward and Siminoski applied.
"I'm excited to learn the trade, and to work regularly and provide for my family," he said. "It's something I wish I had done much earlier in my life."
Local 40, which was established almost 100 years ago, around the same time as many of the major studios in Los Angeles, has more than 800 members that work as inside wiremen, motion picture electricians, HVAC and sound workers, stage managers, special effects technicians, audio mixers, and on-set air and power workers, to name a few of its classifications.
"Some of our members have won Oscars," Flynn said.
Siminoski is applying to the inside apprenticeship, a five-year program with 8,000 hours of on-the-job training and 10 semesters of in-class education. He and his cohort will also learn about electric vehicle charging stations and green energy microgrid systems, ensuring that they'll graduate with skills to match the new technology of the industry.
The grandson of an IBEW member, Siminoski has been active in the local and credits his involvement to his family's history of labor activism. He's served on the negotiating committee, as a steward and has traveled twice to Sacramento to lobby on behalf of pro-union legislation.
"In a way, his lobbying efforts helped create the apprenticeship opportunity that's now open to him," Flynn said.
There's a good chance Siminoski will be joined by another Local 40 member who's also looking to change gears. Bill Brown has been a pyro technician since the mid-90s, working at places like Universal Studios and Disneyland. But the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, and not knowing when things will get back to normal, or what normal will even look like, got him thinking about other options.
"I hope I never fall into this situation again," Brown said of the pandemic's toll on the entertainment industry. "But people will always need electricians."
Brown has done some electrical work before, and has a degree in electronics, but says he's eager to get the official certification.
"It's a little like being a jack of all trades and a master of none," Brown said. "I'm looking forward to getting a formal training, to have the knowledge and be able to show that I've done the work."
He's not planning on giving up pyrotechnics altogether though.
"I can still do it on weekends," Brown said. "Other members have done it that way."
Like Siminoski, Brown says he's thankful to have this chance available to him through his union.
"If the union wasn't there, I wouldn't have this opportunity," Brown said. "Not everybody has something like this available to them."
Both Brown and Siminoski will be stepping into new careers in an industry they've known for years, but one that is, like everywhere else, operating under new COVID protocols. Thanks in part to union negotiations, film sets now have mandatory coronavirus testing, including pre-employment testing, as well as paid sick leave and requirements for masks, social distancing and sanitizer, all enforced by an onsite COVID monitor.
It's possible that Brown and Siminoski's apprenticeship will have them pulling wire and bending conduit on a new attraction at Universal Studios, the Nintendo World theme park. It's one of a number of projects coming up for Local 40, Flynn said.
"There's work on the horizon," Flynn said. "There's a lot going on in the multimedia industry, and there's also work around the FIFA World Cup in 2026 and the 2028 Olympics."
Flynn says they've had other members transition from different classifications into the inside apprenticeship, and they've been successful. And last year, the local was able to find work at neighboring locals for some of its sound members who were impacted by the closing of the Universal Studios theme park.
"Whatever we can do for our members, that's what we'll do," Flynn said. "These opportunities were here before COVID, and they'll still be here after the virus is contained."