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Teamsters’ alleged slurs raise doubts about film tax credit

The Teamsters who allegedly slashed tires and hurled racist, sexist, and antigay epithets at a “Top Chef” filming site in Milton in June ought to consider how much they stand to lose if their offensive antics cause the public to lose faith in the Massachusetts film industry. The state program, which subsidizes 25 percent of movie and TV production costs, has ambitious goals of promoting the state’s global image and spurring the local creative economy. But in practice, one of the chief beneficiaries of the subsidies, which totaled $44 million in 2011, are the laborers who move and assemble equipment. That’s work that Teamsters members demand, and often get. But if taxpayers conclude from incidents like the one in Milton that bullying bigots feel entitled to their tax-credit money, the incentive program’s days will probably be numbered.

First reported by Deadline.com, the June incident involved a Teamsters protest outside Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton, where “Top Chef” was filming an episode for its next season. Teamsters picketed because the show had hired nonunion personnel to transport equipment. “We’re gonna bash that pretty face in, you [expletive] whore,” one Teamster allegedly screamed at the show’s host, Padma Lakshmi. Residents also reported that about 10 car tires were slashed. The Teamsters denied the account — “as far as we’re concerned, it didn’t happen,” a spokeswoman said — but defended their right to protest the production.

They do have the right to protest, but the public also has the right to wonder whether such ugly scenes cancel out whatever good publicity the film program creates. And because of the tax credit, any effort to shake down producers is, in effect, an attempt to shake down taxpayers, too. And that only calls to mind the troubled history of movie production in Massachusetts. For a time, some producers avoided filming here, mainly because of high labor costs but also because a series of controversies involving local Teamsters had soured the Boston area’s image. The film tax credit persuaded filmmakers to take another look. But if there are any more incidents like the one in June, the Teamsters will no longer seem like an outfit the public can feel good about supporting — an outcome that would hurt union members more than anyone else.