Carl Covelli Jr. has been a movie projectionist since he was 17. He says it’s in his blood. His brother is a projectionist. His grandfather was a projectionist, hand cranking movies in the days of silver nitrate film, which was highly flammable (it caused the Iroquois Theatre fire that killed 571 people). Covelli’s father too was a projectionist. “I remember on Saturday nights mom would get some fried chicken, and we’d all go sit with dad in the booth while he ran the movies. If we were lucky, he’d get the drive-in.” Covelli, now 42, has been looking forward to bringing his three-year-old son to the 11-screen Webster Place, where he’s worked for about a decade as one of five projectionists.

But when Covelli went to work on Monday, April 27, he and 140 other unionized projectionists at Chicago-area movie theaters got a notice telling them to go home. They’ve been picketing ever since. Last Wednesday Covelli was one of half a dozen projectionists from Local 110 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which has been representing projectionists since 1915, on the picket line in front of the Esquire urging moviegoers to boycott Sony/Loews and Cineplex Odeon.

Sony/Loews and Cineplex Odeon–which will merge operations by the end of June–locked out union projectionists at 62 area theaters during contract negotiations. Cineplex Odeon wants to cut its 85 full-time workers to 41 as well as cut their pay, which ranges from $16.25 to $31.50 an hour, to $13.50 to $20 an hour. (According to the union, the average pay is now about $21 an hour, for an annual salary of around $42,000.) Sony/Loews has asked for a nearly 50 percent workforce cut as well as a reduction in wages and benefits.

Negotiations over a new five-year contract–the last one expired in February–had been going on since late last year. “We knew that some jobs would have to be given up,” says Frank Coakley, spokesman for Local 110. But he and other union officials say that Sony/Loews never made it clear that the workforce reductions were a final offer and never allowed the members time for a vote on that offer; on May 7 they filed unfair-labor-practice complaints. “They are trying to bust the union,” says Al Brenkus, secretary-treasurer for Local 110.

Marc Pascucci, spokesman for Sony/Loews, denies that the intention is to break the union and says the company is willing to negotiate at any time. But he also claims that improved technology has made many of the current jobs unnecessary–the chain runs theaters in other parts of the country with smaller, nonunion workforces. “We’ve built new theaters and reconditioned old ones, so it is easier to operate a projector than it used to be,” he says. “We’re trying to deal with the realities of operating a business today.”

But union members say the job hasn’t changed that much. And they say the changes that have been made haven’t made showing a movie easy. The projector is five feet tall, the “platters” holding the film are three feet wide, and the reels of film, which contain only 15 to 20 minutes of a movie and have to be loaded separately onto the platters, are large and heavy. “When the reels come in, the projectionist has to splice the reels on the platter correctly,” says Brenkus. “You have to cue the film so the automation knows what it has to do. You thread it through the platter. When the movie ends you have to relace it again. On Thursdays and Fridays, when you break the film down and put it back on the reels, you don’t sit down.”

Kristin Adams, a projectionist in Northbrook, says that many problems can come up that require a skilled worker. The film can get out of focus. It can get tangled in the projector. It can unravel. “You ever seen a thousand feet of reel lying on the floor?” she says. She and other union members also claim that as the number of screens has increased, so has the workload, because there’s often only one projectionist racing back and forth operating the equipment for up to 18 screens. Any minor accident with one projector can cause major disruptions in the other theaters.

Moreover, union members say, technological advances may have made skilled projectionists obsolete in other markets, but in Chicago old projectors are still used in many theaters–even in theaters that were recently built. According to Covelli, Webster Place is 10 years old, but the projectors came from other theaters and are about 15 years old. Brenkus says that projectors at the Fine Arts and Hyde Park theaters are over a decade old. “They haven’t changed the equipment at all,” he says.

Union members also cite the health risks associated with their trade. Film is now less flammable than it once was, but it’s still flammable. Coakley worries about the people running the projectors while the projectionists are on strike. “They think they can just get away with kids running the stuff,” he says. “This equipment is dangerous. It has xenon bulbs, which can explode, and some kid is going to get hurt.”

As if acknowledging that the job can be tricky, Sony/Loews, which had trained theater managers and supervisors to run projectors for several weeks before locking the union out, flew in experienced nonunion personnel from out of state to work the projectors. Union members don’t believe it will be possible to run the theaters with unskilled projectionists. They think the chain intends to train a new staff of nonunion projectionists and pay them less.

Union officials acknowledge that their bargaining position has been weakened by the fact that no one else in the theater is unionized. “We’ve tried a couple of different tactics to organize them, but it’s mostly kids they hire–and the kids are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they talk to someone from a union,” says Brenkus. He adds that high turnover makes organizing even harder, as have previous workforce cuts. “We were locked out by Cineplex Odeon five years ago, and we lost 130 jobs,” he says. “How could we add new people?”

Covelli, who worries that the public no longer has much sympathy for organized labor and won’t honor the boycott, says he doesn’t know what he’ll do if the union is broken and he loses his job. “That’s terrifying. I look and look in the paper, and I just stare. There are these kids coming out of college, they’ll work for $20,000 a year. But I’m 42 years old.” He looks at the four or five projectionists picketing the Esquire, then at the workers inside. “These are working people. You buy your automobile made in America, you buy a nice house, you try to do the best you can. But where do you go now?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Al Brenkus photo by Jon Randolph.