International Documentary Association Says Union Is Welcome After Staff Exodus — but First, a Lawyer

Before he became the executive director of the International Documentary Association, Rick Pérez was a nonfiction director and producer perhaps best known for his 2014 Sundance entry “Cesar’s Last Fast,” which profiled labor leader Cesar Chavez’s 1988 hunger strike.

Now, Pérez finds himself at the center of another union story — but this time, he’s on management’s side.

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After losing almost all of his senior staff in protest of “workplace conduct” and the IDA’s “betrayal of public commitments,” the 11 remaining full-time staffers formed a union, Documentary Workers United, under Communications Workers of America, with the express mission to have a say in how the IDA rebuilds.

“It is critical we establish a union because it will help guarantee a safe workplace with transparency, equity, and fairness while providing the staff with opportunities to participate and have a voice in IDA’s management and vision,” the DWU wrote in its mission statement. “As those closest to the work, we seek to have a say in decisions about organizational priorities, hiring of staff, growth, and resource allocation to keep all aspects of our work more accountable to our mission and values.”

On March 16, the board co-chair Chris Pérez informed the workers that the IDA would voluntarily recognize the union “in the interest of moving forward and healing together.” However, the IDA initially made a curious choice of counsel to iron out the details: Seyfarth Shaw. In labor circles, the firm is notorious for its union-busting — and proudly lists its work fighting Chavez and his United Farm Workers in the 1970s as part of its longstanding commitment of “influencing the course of labor law to serve our clients’ needs.”

After a Seyfarth Shaw attorney contacted the Communications Workers of America March 17, workers said they’d had enough, it was the latest installment in a back-and-forth over deadlines and details that lasted throughout the week. For them, “voluntary recognition” meant one thing: IDA leadership explicitly agreeing to the terms outlined in their mission statement.

The involvement of a lawyer, and one from such a notorious firm, suggested that the board wanted to negotiate. On March 19, the workers filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board, triggering a structured process for both sides to hash out the particulars.

Now, all eyes are on how leadership conducts negotiations with the union over the coming months — actions that will show just how enthusiastic the IDA is about its employees’ demands.

In a Medium post published March 21, “An introduction to the IDA Board,” a new executive committee works to strike a conciliatory tone. “To make it absolutely clear, we enthusiastically support and recognize workers’ right to unionize,” they wrote. “Some of us on the board are union members, others have worked with unions and see them as allies locally and globally.”

The committee noted that IDA “felt rushed” by the process of recognizing the union, which led them to approach an attorney “who had previously advised the board” — aka Seyfarth Shaw — but “did not intend to engage him as counsel… It was a mistake to rush this process and we regret the confusion this has caused.”

The IDA is now seeking counsel from a less-incendiary firm, but declined to comment to IndieWire until that representation was in place. IDA leadership has not indicated any positions on the union’s mission statement.

“No definition of a bargaining unit was provided in that email,” the union wrote in a statement to IndieWire Tuesday. “Both the DWU mission statement and the letter of recognition that followed included a sentence that clearly defined who would be in DWU’s bargaining unit: ‘all Associates, Coordinators, Specialists, Officers, and non-Senior Managers'”

The organization of the IDA workers represents a “unique case,” according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Among the reasons: IDA has loudly proclaimed a pro-union position. Bronfenbrenner, who has no direct connection to the IDA and knows only what has been reported about the union effort, offered a general overview of organizing processes.

“The employer said ‘we recognize you,’ but they didn’t agree to the terms of the recognition” demanded by the workers, she said. “The union is worried the employer isn’t going to bargain with them, is going to refuse to allow certain workers in the bargaining unit, or is just going to stall. They figure they’ll have the NLRB oversee it.”

Determining bargaining units comes in different flavors, Bronfenbrenner said. The sides can mutually agree, they can compromise, or they can have an NLRB officer decide at a hearing. An election is on the horizon, but the sides are still able to strike a deal without going to a vote.

Current points of debate include common issues regarding such as who qualifies for the union, but the current asks by IDA employees include creating “accountability for situations where IDA leadership diminishes current and former staff (foul language, aggressive outbursts, sharing confidential information, etc.) in both private and public settings,” fair compensation, and “protection of the staff’s executive authority over their organizational duties as outlined in their job descriptions.”

Also on the table: prioritizing staff concerns and sticking to reasonable timelines “over fixing IDA’s public image.”

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