A film crew in Oklahoma City on the set of a movie adaptation of BlazeTV host Steve Deace's book, " A Nefarious Plot," has gone on strike, demanding that the production company recognize union representation for its crew members. The moviemakers have accused the involved out-of-state union of making false claims about their conduct, and of using "mob type tactics" against non-union workers.
About 40 workers walked off the set and stopped production on "Nefarious" Monday, forming a picket line to get the California-based production company, Nefarious Film LLC, to recognize the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees as a collective bargaining agent for the crew. The workers are also demanding health and retirement benefits in their contracts. The strike has continued into Thursday.
Additionally, IATSE on Monday filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board against the production company, alleging that multiple employees were fired for supporting unionization and that others were "interrogated," "surveilled," or otherwise coerced once word of unionization spread.
Union representatives said on social media that the workers want a "fair contract" that provides "industry-standard working conditions and benefits."
"Right now, they just want to be recognized as union members," said IATSE Central Region Business representative Winona Wacker, in an interview with KWTV-DT.
"We are super invested in making this movie. A lot of these people are super invested in making this movie but there's been ... no progress," said Wacker.
In an interview, "Nefarious" co-screenwriter and co-director Chuck Konzelman categorically denied the accusations made in the labor complaint.
"No one has been fired. No one has been interrogated," said Konzelman, who is best known for co-writing the faith-based mega-hit "God's Not Dead."
When asked about the allegations of other "coercive actions," he told TheBlaze that the union would likely consider flying in replacements to take over for the striking workers as coercive, but objected to that characterization.
Federal law guarantees that employees have "the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection," as well as the right "to refrain from any or all such activities."
The National Labor Relations Board website lists various examples of what may constitute an illegal attempt to "to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights" to unionize. Those actions include threatening employees with adverse consequences for forming a union; promising benefits if they reject unionization; coercively questioning employees about their own or coworker's union activities or sympathies; spying on employee's union activities; and more.
Konzelman said the film's production has been troubled from the start. "Nefarious" is a low-budget project, with just under $2 million approved for the film. It's also a short-term production — filming is supposed to take roughly two and a half weeks.
When the crew arrived in Oklahoma last July to begin shooting, an outbreak of COVID-19 swept through core personnel management and production was forced to shut down for several months. The production company had already paid for a set to be built, and rather than have it torn down, Konzelman said the company continued to rent the soundstage for five months "at great expense," even though nothing was filmed.
The crew returned to start up preproduction again in late October, with the first three days of shooting happening just last week. Then on Friday, Konzelman's unit production manager informed him there were "rumblings" of a strike being called.
"We were surprised because our crew seemed very happy," Konzelman said.
The first official threat of a strike was made on Sunday, Dec. 6, in an email from an IATSE attorney to Nefarious Film LLC's attorney announcing the demand for union contracts.
The email, which was shared with TheBlaze, states that IATSE will not provide the production company with signed authorization for representation cards, which would indicate the number of workers who legally asked IATSE to represent them. The union also said they would not agree to hold a vote before calling a strike, "due to the brevity of this production."
"If your client chooses not to voluntarily recognize the I.A.T.S.E. as the collective bargaining agent, we are within our legal right to strike for recognition. I would say your clients know the strength of the crew’s support for organizing given their unlawful questioning of them yesterday but a strike for recognition would also legally demonstrate our majority status," the lawyer wrote.
When asked what IATSE's lawyer was referring to by "unlawful questioning," Konzelman said one of Nefarious Film LLC's production staff informally polled department heads on Friday, asking if they were aware of a possible strike and whether their departments as a whole were inclined to walk out.
"Since the questions were asked outside, in the open air, one or more union people heard the question and were offended, saying words to the effect of 'you can't do that'. To which the production person responded that they weren't part of the conversation, and the question hadn't been asked of them," Konzelman told TheBlaze.
Federal law prohibits employers from polling employees to determine the extent of their support for a union unless they comply with certain safeguards.
On Monday, when the production team arrived for work, they were greeted by a picket line.
"The strike was called without a strike vote and there was no negotiation, really. They just said send us your budget and we'll tell you what you owe us, which we weren't prepared to do," Konzelman said.
IATSE representatives say this dispute is about negotiating for a fair union contract with standard fringe benefits, similar to dozens of union contracts for ultra-low budget films each year. Konzelman disputes this claim, noting that this is a "lousy two million dollar film" and that the production company was upfront that they would not provide health and retirement benefits for a film with such an "abbreviated schedule."
"We made the rates as high as we could on an individual basis early, which by the way, was still not very impressive because we were a very low-budget film. But everybody shook hands and said, 'yeah, we'll do it for that.' And then three days into shooting, suddenly, they couldn't do it for that anymore and we had to become a union shoot," said Konzelman.
Konzelman suggested there were political motivations behind the strike and IATSE's involvement.
"This is partly about suppression of conservative and faith-based media," said Konzelman, noting that the last film he made in Oklahoma, "Unplanned," received "such resistance nationally" that he was invited by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to testify in the Senate on big tech censorship of conservatives.
He also said that the state of Oklahoma and its Right to Work law were targets for the union. He explained that Nefarious Film LLC is one of several film production companies pre-qualified for incentives under the state's Filmed in Oklahoma Act of 2021 — an incentive program that provides a rebate of up to 20% for qualified film and television productions if they are made in Oklahoma. The state wants to attract major motion picture companies to make movies there, and the Right to Work law means that film producers do not have to hire union workers to get their films made.
As a condition of qualifying for this incentive program, a film production company must meet certain criteria as laid out by law. If at any time a project fails to meet the criteria for a certain rebate that it was initially pre-qualified to receive, the state may reduce the size of the incentive offered or cancel it. One of those criteria is the number of "apprentices" claimed — an apprentice is an Oklahoma resident that is supervised by an experienced "Master Tradesperson" and is working on the project.
Konzelman says that IATSE is "terrorizing down into the college level" by threatening the apprentices hired to work on the film that "if you cross that picket line, you're dead to the unions forever." He said the point of keeping the apprentices from working was to make Nefarious Film LLC lose the incentives it was pre-qualified for. He characterized the union's alleged actions as "mob type tactics" and said the production company has approached the Oklahoma State Attorney General's office for relief.
Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor's office said it was contacted by one of the film's producers about potential concerns by employees.
"We offered and stand ready to investigate any complaints filed with our office by their employees who feel their rights as employees under state law are violated," Press Secretary Madelyn Sheriff said.
"We have not received any complaints from employees at this time," Sheriff added. "Oklahoma is a right to work state and this office will vigorously investigate and enforce those laws for employees who file complaints."
Steve Deace, the author of the book "Nefarious" is based on and one of the producers of the film, said in a statement that: "Out of state unions are attempting to violate Oklahoma’s right to work law, as well as hijack the state’s film incentive program."
"I think they chose our movie to make an example out of because they thought we would be easy prey since we’re an independent film," said Deace. "They thought wrong.”
A spokesman for IATSE denied that the workers had political motivations behind demanding a union contract.
"It is profoundly disappointing to see this employer and state politicians turn this into a nonsensical political conspiracy theory when it’s not," said IATSE Director of Communications Jonas Loeb. "Our people have been hired to build stages for Trump rallies, set up Republican National Conventions, and they do so flawlessly when asked. The content itself is irrelevant. Workers who asked for our help in forming a union even protested Michelle Obama’s book tour in 2019 in a remarkably similar situation.
"At the end of the day, the workers want to finish this movie, they just want a union contract while doing it," he said.
While the strike is ongoing, and Oklahoma's government has yet to act, Konzelman said "Nefarious" will resume shooting at the end of this week with replacement workers. He emphasized that none of the striking workers have been fired, and that the union's claims of wrongful terminations are "deliberately false and malicious."
"Since we have returned here in October there have been no terminations of any kind. No terminations of any kind for any reason," said Konzelman. "Even the strikers, if they walked on set today, would still have a job."
He offered an apology to the employees whose jobs have been disrupted by the strike.
"I just want to apologize to all the innocent people who've gotten caught up in this mess, which is not of our making and not of their making either. There are a lot of people who would like to work on this production. We want to be able to be working on the production and this union action is preventing us from doing so."
"Nefarious" is written and directed by Konzelman and Cary Solomon. It stars Sean Patrick Flanery as a convicted serial killer slated for execution who claims to be a demon. On the day he is to be put to death, he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he's mentally fit to receive his sentence.
Solomon and Konzelman are producing "Nefarious" with Chris Jones and Sheila Hart.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:37 p.m. ET on 12/10/2021 to include a comment from the Oklahoma attorney general's office.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:55 p.m. ET on 12/15/2021 to include additional information on federal labor law and a comment from IATSE Director of Communications Jonas Loeb.