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Crain’s Goes Behind the Scenes with Tom O’Donnell

Thomas J. O’Donnell served as secretary-treasurer of Theatrical Teamsters Local 817 for 23 years before being elected president in early 2013. The next year he replaced the Leo Reed as director of the national Teamsters Motion Picture and Theatrical Trades Division. O’Donnell has dedicated his career to growing the motion picture division from coast to coast and advocating for safety standards, work rules and other issues for 10,000 workers on the nation’s movie sets. O’Donnell began his film-industry career as a driver on the 1974 production of Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives, and later became a transportation captain.

When someone says the word “Teamster,” many people think of truck drivers. Of the 1.4 million Teamster members, how many are driving trucks?

Teamsters today are airline attendants, airline pilots, police officers, hospital workers, etc. Actual drivers make up a minority of the Teamsters today.

Local 817 Teamsters transport people, equipment and scenery for productions in the New York area. How important are these Teamsters to movie or television production?

Transportation is usually the biggest department on any production, especially in the metro area. You need to be able to move efficiently and quickly.

You worked as a driver in New York City starting in the ’70s. What are the major differences between working as a Teamster back then and now?

First of all, New York neighborhoods were much more distinctive and grittier than they are today. Workwise, there are a lot more regulations and red tape today. All the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted. Everyone is drug-tested and everybody is complying with the Department of Transportation regulations. The industry is also growing now. Back when I was working in the ’80s, we probably had about 300 people in the union [Local 817], and now we have 1,200 members.