Teamsters trial casts harsh light on film industry

Boston, MA -8/7/2017 - Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi (cq), right, arrives at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse (cq). She is expected to testify in the teamsters trial. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: 08topchef Reporter: Milton Valencia
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
“Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi (right) arrived at the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse during the Teamsters trial.

AT LEAST taxpayers in Massachusetts now have a clearer idea of what they’re being asked to subsidize through the state’s film tax credit.

The violent, bullying behavior of the four Teamsters in the “Top Chef” case didn’t rise to the level of criminality, a federal jury found on Tuesday when it acquitted the men of extortion and conspiracy charges. But the testimony in the case lays bare the sort of tactics used to harass and intimidate producers filming in the Commonwealth. Witnesses in the case described homophobic language, chest-bumping, and tire slashing by the Teamsters — testimony their lawyers sought to minimize, rather than refute.

Unfortunately, the not guilty verdict may well be interpreted as blessing such behavior going forward. That would only turn the union’s vindication Tuesday into a pyrrhic victory. Who’s going to want to make movies or TV shows in Massachusetts if their choices are to either hire such men, or endure their abuse?


Who’s going to do business in an environment where the mayor is happy to denounce bigots in faraway cities, but whose own administration tried to force businesses to hire them here?

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It would be bad enough if the case just left a black eye on the state, reviving the old image of Massachusetts as a hostile place for moviemakers. But the Commonwealth, in an effort to entice more Hollywood filmmakers, offers a generous tax credit.

Yes, that’s right: Of all the workers in all the unions in all the world, your tax dollars are going to the Teamsters.

The tax credit was designed to lure producers who had abandoned Massachusetts precisely because of its backwards reputation. A 2001 state report called the Commonwealth a “celluloid pariah,” largely because of the Teamsters.

In any normal industry, that reputational damage and lost work is the built-in check against heavy-handed practices. Behave too outrageously, and productions simply leave. But Massachusetts instead let the Teamsters escape the consequences of their actions, providing a handout to lure filmmakers back.


There’s room for public subsidies for the arts, and the film tax credit once seemed like a way to spur creative industries in the Commonwealth. But that’s not how it’s worked out. The cost is too high, and the impact on the state’s reputation seems to be precisely the opposite of intended: Instead of showcasing modern Massachusetts, it’s reanimating some of its worst stereotypes.

The union members’ position in the trial was that the tactics at the 2014 protest, rough as they were, were legitimate labor practices. That’s got to come as news to every union that’s negotiated a contract without slashing any tires. The acquitted Teamsters in the “Top Chef” trial won’t suffer any personal consequences, but policies that enabled them should change. The state should withdraw the financial cushion that shields the union from the consequences of its boorish behavior.