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Tragedy Reveals a Union Benefit: Safer Workplaces, Fewer People Die

Whether making movies in New Mexico or buildings in New York City, unions know how to do it safely so all crew members get to go home after work. Non-unions, not so much.

Rust Sites.png

On the left, Santa Fe County, New Mexico, where 42-year-old Halyna Hutchins was accidentally killed on a predominantly non-union production job where few safety protocols were in place. On the right, Ninth Avenue, New York City, where 22-year-old Carlos Moncayo was accidentally killed on a non-union production job where few safety protocols were in place. Unions save lives.    -- Variety and Newsday

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but there are a lot of common plot points connecting the recent accidental death of a cinematographer on the set of a movie with the deaths of scores of men over the past five years who worked in New York City’s construction industry.


The main connection: the absence of unions to protect the innocent. This has become an all-too-common tale.

The plot goes like this: A developer chooses to run a project using non-union labor. The developer reasons that non-union is cheaper and management will have more control. Of course, hiring non-union means fewer safety protocols will be enforced. Safety, after all, is a core focus of unions. But it’s too often seen by management as a costly nice-to-have. Therefore, safety often takes a back seat when management hires non-union.


And in too many of these stories, one of the workers on these jobs ends up dead, the victim of a completely avoidable accident.


If this were a movie you’d probably say, “Already saw that one.”

This tragic ending didn’t have to happen. But with non-union crews running production, it was sadly predictable.


Halyna Hutchins' membership in the Directors' Guild union didn't protect her from the apparent mayhem of an otherwise non-union film shoot. Unions put member safety first. Management has different priorities. Innocent people often pay the price for those priorities  -- Newsweek

Pictured are just 15 of the more-than 60 men who died on the job working in New York City construction over the past 5 years, laboring on non-union sites, many of which had been cited by the Department of Buildings for safety violations. 

But this time, it is a movie – or the making of one. And though the players and roles vary, the events that occurred this October on the set of “Rust,” which led to the accidental death of 42-year-old cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, are scene-by-scene right out of a New York City construction story.


You surely know the sad details by now. On the set of “Rust,” famed actor Alec Baldwin is handed a revolver by the Assistant Director Dave Halls who tells Baldwin and the rest of the workers on the set that it’s a “cold gun,” meaning it is not loaded. Then while rehearsing a scene, Mr. Baldwin points the gun at the camera and pulls the trigger. The gun fires a round. Ms. Hutchins and the movie’s director Joel Souza are hit by the same projectile. Ms. Hutchins, a wife and mother with a blossoming film career, dies from her wound.


This tragic ending didn’t have to happen. But with non-union crews running the production, it was sadly predictable.

“All They Wanted to Do was Rush, Rush, Rush”

By the time Ms. Hutchins was shot, the only union crew members remaining on the set were herself and the director, Joel Souza, who were and are members of the Directors’ Guild of America, according to the Hollywood industry publication Deadline. That’s because the day before the shooting six union crew members, fed up with mistreatment and a casual attitude around gun safety, quit the production.


According to a producer who is employed by a paid-subscription entertainment network and has connections who worked on “Rust,” the six crew members were upset with what felt to them like a film set where very little attention was paid to safety standards. Their discomfort was made worse when their temporary living quarters were moved to nearly two hours away from the production site. They were expected to drive themselves to and from their lodging before and after long days of filming that often exceeded standard hours. (The producer asked for anonymity because he doesn’t want to alienate industry executives.)


The producer says he believes the managers chose the lodging location to save the production company money, and they seemed to ignore the fact that it added 4 commuting hours to each day for the crew. This thought jibed with the rumblings he was hearing about a poorly managed production site where safety was allegedly lax.


Then on October 16 two accidental gun discharges occurred on the set. According to the LA Times, one crew member said, “There should have been an investigation into what happened. There were no safety meetings. There was no assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. All they wanted to do was rush, rush, rush.”


For the union members, management’s non-reaction to the gun misfires was the last straw. They quit. One of them told the producer “It was the worst set I’ve ever been on in my career. There seemed to be no safety protocols. We complained to the department heads constantly, but they didn’t change a thing. After the two gun shots and how they reacted to it, our union said that for our own safety we should quit.”


With the significant absence of six members from the crew, management scrambled to find replacement staff. The producer we spoke with says the replacement staff were not union people. “All the safety training that unions give their people, the security union members have in knowing a union is backing them up – all of that was absent now. Pardon the pun but that set seems like it really was the Wild West.”


Many want to place blame for the shooting on the movie’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who was in charge of managing the firearms on the set. Much has been made of gun misfires that happened on a previous film shoot, where she was also the armorer, that caused actor Nicolas Cage to storm off that set.


But according to her lawyers, Ms. Gutierrez-Reed was hired to fulfill two positions on the “Rust” shoot “which made it extremely difficult to focus on her job as an armorer.” They added, “She fought for training, days to maintain weapons, and proper time to prepare for gunfire but ultimately was overruled by production and her department. The whole production set became unsafe due to various factors, including lack of safety meetings. This was not the fault of Hannah.” But it does seem alarmingly standard for a non-union-run effort.


Safety Costs Money

These reports echo stories we have been publishing here for years, in which non-unionized construction workers are abused by managers seeking unrealistic deadlines and higher profits. Without the benefit of a union behind them, the employees are powerless against their managers’ wishes. They suffer indignities like unpaid overtime, relentless pressure to work faster, being tasked with jobs they aren’t trained to do, and worse. All these factors create unsafe workplaces.


These sad construction stories feature hard-working people with names like Gregory Ecchevarria, Carlos Moncayo, Juan Chonillo, and Manuel Colorado – all of whom died on non-union construction sites in New York City that were managed by companies with a history of safety and abuse citations. Men working for non-union contractors account for 86% of on-site construction deaths in New York the past five years.


The reasons many production companies avoid unions, whether they’re producing movies or buildings, is because unions put their members’ well-being above all else, while the managers want to put profits first. “Worker well-being” means that established safety, workday and pay requirements must be met and maintained. These fairness measures cost money, which affects the amount of profit an executive can take from a project. When it comes to profits vs. safety there ought to be no argument at all.


The Moral of the Story

Movies often attempt to impart a moral to its viewers. The moral of what happened on the “Rust” set is simple to understand. Unions protect workers of all kinds and in many ways. When productions side-step unions for the sake of profit, too often, innocent people die.

By the time Ms. Hutchins was shot, the only union crew members remaining on the set were herself and the director, Joel Souza, who were and are members of the Directors’ Guild of America.

The replacement staff were not union people. "Pardon the pun but that set seems like it really was the Wild West.”

Jessic Beebe
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