George Spiro Dibie was an irrepressible, once-in-a-generation leader whose warmth and goodwill touched the lives of all who knew him. His 20-year legacy as President of Local 659 and Local 600 will be remembered by many as breaking down barriers, fighting for better working conditions and working with IATSE to improve benefits. membership and build union power. During his tenure, the local branch grew from 1,600 to 6,500 members. As General Manager of Local 600, I had the privilege of being his partner in what turned out to be an 18-year odyssey.
It was a wild ride in which the only constant was change. Just as George redefined the way sitcoms were lit, he reinvented the concept of what a filmmaker’s locale should be. He brought a spirit of openness and in doing so broke down two major barriers. Under his leadership, Local 659 opened its roster to a growing non-union workforce that was undermining the Basic Agreement and other IATSE contracts.
Second, George led a movement to increase union power by not allowing producers to pit local unions across the country against each other; he led the merger of locals 659 in Hollywood with 644 in the Eastern region and 666 which had jurisdiction over the Midwest. It took 10 years, but in 1996 IATSE International merged the three locals into Local 600, its first national local, increasing its power and the voice of Local 600 members.
The merger was highly controversial, but George’s goodwill and good works brought together leaders and members from all regions. With his charm, wit and conviction, George managed to keep a National Executive Board of seventy-five members on track. He and former Local 644 President Sol Negrin became close friends and collaborated on lighting workshops and member trainings across the country. George recruited famed cinematographers Allen Daviau, Roger Deakins and Vittorio Storaro, which gave the program instant credibility. He also invented the Kodak Awards which offered camera operators and assistants the opportunity to test their skills as cinematographers.
In negotiations, while George mocked producers’ lawyers across the table to defuse tension, he was adamant on matters of principle such as the mandatory staffing of cameramen. As early as 1997, he put Local 600 at the forefront in the fight against long hours, when he offered weekend rotations, increases in daily rotations and heavy penalties for invading rotations and meal penalties. .
In 2001, George broke another barrier. With his expertise in digital cinematography, he was instrumental in the negotiations of IATSE’s landmark digital deal. As a result, Local 600 added to new job classifications, Digital Imaging Technician and Digital Utility, now mainstays of the film crew. George’s real baby, however, was his proposal to increase the base of the individual account pension plan to a percentage of scale salaries. In 1996, the IATSE agreed and did, giving members with long-standing careers a huge boost to their retirement savings.
George was a larger than life character. He was a PT Barnum type promoter. He could have made a living as a comedian and enjoyed making people laugh. He loved his job and he loved people. He was incredibly generous and delighted to entertain friends, especially when he could treat them to a four-course lunch at Carnevale, his favorite restaurant.
As a five-time Emmy Award winner and 12-time nominee, George was the perfect ambassador for the local. His crews loved him, IATSE, local sisters and producers respected him, and his personality won him friends throughout the industry.
Many of George’s closest friends were among the hundreds of members and students he mentored. He was never too busy to answer a technical question, help a member through a difficult time, or recommend a mentee for promotion.
I was amazed at how quickly he started conversations with complete strangers. On flights from Los Angeles to New York, he frequently befriended the passengers seated with him or even those he met in the aisles. He would proudly tell them that he was a cinematographer in Hollywood. After explaining what a cinematographer does, he asked if they had seen Barney Miller, Murphy Brown or the ten of us etc Then he told them he was working with Barbara Streisand a clear day and “she liked the smell of my cologne.” By the end of most flights he had made three or four new friends.
I spoke to George the week before he died. He told me that he fired his “FF” (bad) doctor and hired a new one. “I feel better. Maybe we can go to Carnevale for lunch,” he said.
There will never be another George Spiro Dibie, but he left us with so many lasting memories.
Bruce Doering is the former General Manager of Local 600.