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John M. Lewis of IATSE: “It is much easier to say no than to say yes, but don’t let that stop you from doing what’s right”

Apart from the direct benefits our members receive in terms of the representation they receive, the IATSE, and other entertainment industry labour organizations, has created a structure that fits well with the modern gig economy. The IATSE has been representing workers whose jobs are short-term and precarious in nature for over 125 years. The legal […]


Apart from the direct benefits our members receive in terms of the representation they receive, the IATSE, and other entertainment industry labour organizations, has created a structure that fits well with the modern gig economy. The IATSE has been representing workers whose jobs are short-term and precarious in nature for over 125 years. The legal structures did not lend themselves to these forms of employment, so the IATSE went out and created our own to address our members’ needs. We created hiring halls, multi-employer benefit plans, training structures and collective agreements that addressed precarious work. As the broader labour movement struggles to come to terms with this new form of labour market, I think the IATSE can be a symbol of what is possible.


As a part of my series about individuals making a social impact, I had the pleasure to interview John M. Lewis. John was appointed IATSE Director of Canadian Affairs in 2002 and was elected to his position on the IATSE International Executive Board in 2007. Previous to the IATSE, he served as Vice Chair to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. An honours graduate of St. Francis Xavier University, with a concentration in Finance, the Montreal-born Lewis is also a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School. Early in his legal career, Lewis represented a number of trade unions and provided assistance in the negotiation of various collective agreements. He served as the General Counsel and Business Manager for Local №675, Drywall, Acoustic, Lathing and Insulation Workers for approximately five years. In addition, Lewis sat as a private mediator and arbitrator when jointly requested by parties to a dispute. Lewis also practiced union-side labour law in Toronto with Jesin and Watson.


Thank you so much for doing this with us John! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I come from a working class family. My father was a carpenter by trade and my mother worked in various jobs to support 7 children, of which I am the youngest. I went to St. Francis Xavier University and got my Honours Business degree and then a Law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. I focused on labour law in Law School and was only interested in working on the union side. I wanted to fight for workers, rather than against them. I joined a union-side labour law firm, where I practiced mainly in the construction sector. I joined a carpenters’ local union as an in-house lawyer and eventually was elected as the local’s Business Manager. It was at this I time I was asked to join the Ontario Labour Relations Board as a Vice Chair. Vice Chairs are sort of like judges in labour law hearings. They hear evidence from lawyers representing the employer and the worker(s), and then render a decision. I was intrigued by the opportunity and I had enormous respect for Rick McDowell, the Chair of the Board at that time. I cannot say enough about my time at the Labour Board. I was surrounded by staff, colleagues and friends who worked professionally to maintain the high standards for which the Board is deservedly known. After six years I was once again recruited, this time by the IATSE, to assume the role of Director of Canadian Affairs. I guess the union bug had not left my system, so I agreed and began my career with the IATSE first as Director of Canadian Affairs and subsequently I was also elected as an International Vice President.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your organization?

The IATSE is comprised of many local unions and our structure is founded upon the concept of local autonomy. Local unions and their members are given a considerable degree of latitude to run their own affairs, so long as they do so in compliance with the International Constitution. Part of the role of the International is to work with our local union leadership for a common purpose. During my tenure we have seen a remarkable increase in locals working together and I am most proud of our efforts to create a single retirement plan in Canada which is now approaching $600 million in assets and a national health plan which has led to substantial cost savings for the various local plans and now have annual premiums in excess of $45 million. These accomplishments were only made possible by having local union leadership come together and work for the common good of all members across Canada.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am a lawyer by training and never worked in the entertainment industry. I came from the construction industry so I had an appreciation for the work of skilled craftspeople. I completely underestimated the incredible skills possessed by our members. They are cinematographers, costume designers, riggers, lighting technicians, scenic artists, special effects technicians, makeup artists, set decorators — almost every behind-the-scenes position you can think of. These are the people behind almost every major film, TV show, theatrical production or concert. To this day I am in awe of what our members are able to accomplish on a daily basis on sound stages and in theatres. We truly make the impossible, possible. I must have looked like a wide-eyed child wandering the various film studios and theatres, completely gob-smacked at what I saw our members being able to accomplish. On more than one occasion I have had to be taken by the arm and escorted away as I was becoming a safety hazard and getting in the way!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Apart from the direct benefits our members receive in terms of the representation they receive, the IATSE, and other entertainment industry labour organizations, has created a structure that fits well with the modern gig economy. The IATSE has been representing workers whose jobs are short-term and precarious in nature for over 125 years. The legal structures did not lend themselves to these forms of employment, so the IATSE went out and created our own to address our members’ needs. We created hiring halls, multi-employer benefit plans, training structures and collective agreements that addressed precarious work. As the broader labour movement struggles to come to terms with this new form of labour market, I think the IATSE can be a symbol of what is possible.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

The most enjoyment I get from my job is organizing. That’s what people outside the labour movement normally call “unionizing.” It is incredibly difficult work, but very rewarding as well. Typically, success rates are very low, though the IATSE has been fortunate to have quite a high success rate. I can think of nothing more humbling than to have unrepresented workers put their lives in your hands by signing a union card and potentially placing them at odds with their employer as they try to form a union. They look to you and to the union for security and a promise that their working lives can be improved. I have met a number of newly organized workers and I have seen the difference the union has made. There is no greater sense of achievement for me. An added benefit is that these newly organized workers tend to be great union members; active and willing to lend a hand volunteering on some union project or at community events in which we’re participating.

Can you tell our readers about your “Just Ask” Election campaign?

Going into this fall’s federal election, we have partnered with the DGC (Directors’ Guild of Canada), and ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) on a member engagement campaign called Just Ask (ou Je m’implique, en français). The goal is getting our members — people who make their living in the arts & culture sector — out to campaign events such as local candidates’ debates, and having them ask the candidates key questions about issues facing our industry. We’re asking members to pledge to attend at least one town hall or all-candidates meeting and ask at least one question. The questions are listed on the Just Ask / Je m’implique website, and interested members can sign up there to participate.

Last year, the Canadian film sector created over 179,000 FTE (full-time equivalent) jobs. That’s a significant number, and doesn’t take into account the thousands of jobs across the live performance sector. Entertainment is big business for Canada — bigger than agriculture or forestry — and we need to ensure that our elected representatives understand and support the industry. That’s really what this campaign is all about. If you’re interested, you can find more info on the campaign website at www.justask2019.ca, or in French, at www.jememplique2019.ca.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Over time my view of leadership has changed and, in particular, the characteristics of what I believe to be a successful leader. Empathy is largely undervalued or ignored when describing the traits of a successful leader. You have to remind yourself sometimes that every employee has their own strengths and their own challenges. Play to their strengths. I have my challenges, too. We all do. At its most general level, a leader empowers those around him/her and provides them with the necessary tools to succeed.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You need to move slowly to introduce cultural change to an organization, particularly one that has been around over 125 years with a strong sense of family.
  2. Change is made easier when you align an individual’s self interest with the organization’s collective interest.
  3. It takes tremendous and continuous effort to overcome organizational inertia or status quo.
  4. Promote your successes over and over again.
  5. It is much easier to say no than to say yes, but don’t let that stop you from doing what’s right.

The IATSE has experience unprecedented growth since I arrived. In Canada we had less than 13,000 members and we are now approaching 26,000 members. Across North America, our membership has increased to 147,000 members. The IATSE membership is largely comprised of freelance workers who traditionally viewed non-union workers — even those who work in their craft — as a threat. The challenge was to change that thinking to allow us to work with our locals to bring these unrepresented workers into the union to increase our strength, which is measured by our ability to control the labour market. Bargaining stronger agreements with higher wages and benefits is only possible when you control the marketplace. Led by International President Matthew Loeb, the IATSE has fundamentally changed the way in which we view ourselves and our relationship with non-union workers. This is not a finished product but our growth in membership is an indication we are making headway in changing the culture of our proud union.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The environmental movement used to have a saying; “Think globally, act locally.” It is easy to be overwhelmed by what is happening around us on a daily basis. It may sound trite but every global movement begins with a single thought or action. The union movement champions individual empowerment. The IATSE launched two campaigns in Canada which started from humble beginnings. The IATSE has teamed up with Food Banks Canada for its annual Every Plate Full Challenge and this year we surpassed our goal by providing of 1.2 million meals. As another example, a number of years ago one of our local leaders fell victim to a heart attack and a conversation was started. It led to efforts by Canadian IATSE locals to install over 100 AEDs (defibrillators) in theatres and studios across the country to improve the health and wellbeing of our members and other entertainment workers. Both of these campaigns began with an idea and a conversation, which grew into something much larger. We all have that capacity to bring about change and it can start with a conversation over a cup of coffee.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Many of our local officers come from the floor where their employment can feature long hours for short periods of time with tight schedules to meet. I have witnessed many newly elected officers treat their new job with the union in a fashion which leads to burn out. I want to support them and to ensure that they’re able to continue to do the work that they wanted, and were elected, to do. Therefore, my first words of encouragement and advice to newly elected officers is always, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Most of us fail to achieve a healthy and sustainable work-life balance. In what is arguably the most pressure filled job in the world, the former President and First Lady seemed to be able to achieve such a balance, which most of us fail to do. I would love the opportunity to discuss that aspect of their lives.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can find me on Twitter at @JohnMorganLewis, or follow the @IATSECANADA Twitter account.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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