Women Making History: An IATSE Local 26 Timeline

For Women’s History Month let’s look, frankly not that far, back into the history of IATSE Local 26. Celebrate the women that were responsible for breaking down barriers and paving the way for future generations. We are one of the most long-lived with a National Alliance charter signed November 15, 1894. Our International Charter was signed on July 24, 1902, after IATSE welcomed Canadian Locals into the Alliance. For a time, we were known as Local 291, with an International charter signed on July 10, 1913, before going back to our original Local No. 26. Over the years we merged with other Locals, including Local 188 out of Kalamazoo.

Whether you choose our original 1894 National Charter or the International Charter in 1913, we are looking at 86 to 67 years with an entirely male membership. Barely more than 40 years ago, that barrier was shattered by Mary Sides of Local 188 and Karen Kuiper of Local 26.

Carolyn Schneider is known for being the first woman elected to Local 26’s Executive Board when she became Recording Secretary. What many do not realize is that, at that time, this was a non-voting position. Does that lessen her achievement? Absolutely not. She was in the room where decisions were being made. She may not have been able to voice a vote, but she was able to voice a perspective. Sadly, we returned to a completely male Executive Board for several years after Carolyn left office.

It was not until 2001 that our own Beth Snyder was elected Recording Secretary. It was still a non-voting position in the Local. In 2005, Beth was the first woman to represent us at the meeting of the highest legislative and judicial body in the IATSE at the Quadrennial Convention. Shortly thereafter, a Local 26 Constitutional amendment was passed giving the Recording Secretary the vote, so she became the first woman allowed to vote on Executive Board motions.

2006 was the beginning of a new era. Stasia Savage became the first woman to serve as Business Agent for IATSE Local 26.  The BA oversees all members and referents, as well as day-to-day operations of the Local and its office. She represents the Local in all dealings with employers, provides employers with labor through the Local’s Referral program, and maintains a list of all work assigned. She also serves as Delegate to the International Convention and Michigan Alliance, Eighth District, and the AFL-CIO. It is the most influential and powerful position in the Local.

Stasia led the Local to organize Miller Auditorium, the Grand Rapids Ballet, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and the summer concert series at Frederik Meijer Gardens. The last of which was organized after Michigan became a Right to Work (for less) state. In 2008-2012 the movie business was busy in Michigan and Local 26 proved that there is more to MI than Detroit when it comes to movies.  And that just because we are a small local doesn’t mean you can push us around.  We stopped local 38 from taking the film jurisdiction for the entire state. Thanks to that income we were able to purchase our office building in 2008 and pay it off in two years. Though some opposed it at the time, it has been a great asset. Beyond the membership meetings, we have hosted numerous training classes, committee meetings, political action sign making events, and numerous other activities to build up the union.

Rose Sturgis became the first woman to serve as 2nd Vice President. She reported directly to the President. At the time the 2nd Vice President specifically focused on Wardrobe issues. Her duties included investigating all complaints of members and deciding, if possible, upon all questions between the employers and employees. Vice Presidents also act as part of the Trial Board of the Local. Rose went on to faithfully represent us for a total of four terms as 2nd Vice President.

For the first time three women were elected to the Executive Board of Local 26 at the same time. Together these ladies were able to move the union forward as a more inclusive and transparent organization. Women were starting to recognize the possibilities for success in our Local. They inspired many women to join the union. Clearly the membership recognized we were on the right path. Three years later, the 2009 election found us again with Stasia as Business Agent, Rose as 2nd Vice President, and Beth as Recording Secretary. After the 2012 election, Stasia remained in office as Business Agent and Rose as 2nd Vice President.

2015 brought the total of women elected to office to four:  Jessica Westra as Recording Secretary, Rose as 2nd VP, Stasia as BA, and Jessi Nix-Gould as a Trustee. The Local was growing by leaps and bounds. The old paper notebook and pen system we used for filling calls was finally retired and we began using CallSteward.com. It dramatically increased the transparency surrounding how we filled calls and made tracking schedules, contact information, and skills much more efficient and easier. As soon as a Labor Request was received, it was entered and visible to the members and referents. People could make plans and arrange carpools. Department Heads knew who was on their crew before they showed up for work. We were modernizing and improving.

In 2017, Beth was tasked with redesigning the Local 26 website. She worked with the developer to create our first fully functioning website, giving members and referents access to important documents such as our contracts, referral procedure, venue information and forms and making them now available at all times. Members can review meeting minutes going back multiple years. The site also provides a professional presentation to the public. She continues to oversee content and ensures information is up to date.

June 4th, 2017 at Frederik Meijer Gardens saw an entire female Local crew for Replay America. Head Carpenter Megan Claypool (Second generation Local 26 member, second from the right) led the crew through every step of the process of setting up a live show. Jess Westra was call steward at the time. One dinosaur actually asked her who was going to do the heavy lifting. The answer, as always, was simple: the women. In every department from Electrics to Audio to Rigging, we have women working and succeeding. Don’t take our word for it! The vendor was asked that day how things went. The response: “Today was a breeze, can we have them all back next time?”

In 2015, Jessi Nix-Gould was elected the first woman Trustee of Local 26. Trustees are charged with ensuring any officer or employee of the Local who handles funds and/or property is bonded as required by law. They are also responsible for auditing the books of the Local every six months and ensure all books and records of the Local are preserved for at least five years.

That is a dry description. Trustees keep us honest. They are the ones that make sure union funds are spent on union business, union training, and union causes. Jessi took this job seriously. She completed the inaugural session of IATSE’s Officers Institute Local Trustee Training and brought that knowledge back to our Local.

Stasia made history again by becoming the first woman to serve as President of IATSE Local 26.  The President presides over all meetings of the membership and Executive Board, works with the BA to set an agenda for each meeting that addresses the short and long-term goals of the union, appoints all Committees and their Chairperson, and enforces the Local’s rules, wage scales, and conditions. As President she served as Delegate to the International Convention, the Michigan Alliance, the Eighth District, and the AFL-CIO. Under Stasia’s leadership Local 26 added several standing committees, including Political Action and Diversity.

We were not a large Local, but we were definitely on a successful path. In 2006 we did $2.6 million in payroll. By the end of 2019 we had done $4.3 million in payroll.

After 12 years of successfully managing the Local as BA, we were fortunate that Stasia also used her time as President to help our next Business Agents find their footing. She has now moved on to be an International Representative for IATSE out the New York offices. She continues to inspire and mentor the next generation of leaders in Local 26.

2018 was the second time four women were elected to the Board: Stasia became the first woman President, Jess Westra the first woman 1st VP, Beth returned as Recording Secretary, and Jessi Nix-Gould remained a Trustee. While Jess Westra was Co-Chair of the Education and Safety Committee the hours spent on training between 2017 and 2019 tripled! She personally taught many safety courses, steward trainings, and new referent orientations. She also co-created courses on Knots, Weight Loading, Wardrobe, and more. She expanded the Local’s social media presence to use it as a tool for education, activism, and engagement.

Jess has been instrumental in changing new contracts and working agreements to more inclusive gender-neutral language from the male-dominated language of the past, as well as the Local’s Constitution and By-Laws, Referral Procedure, and other formal documents. She is also spearheading the addition of protections for working parents and caregivers to our agreements.

Which brings us to the present. In the 2020 election Jess Westra became President, Lindsey Katerberg joined the Board as 1st VP, and Beth remains Recording Secretary. Additionally, Jess Westra is currently working as the first female Head Video on house staff at DeVos Place.

Lindsey Katerberg may singlehandedly bring a film tax credit to Michigan. She now sits on the board of MIFiA (Michigan Film Industry Association). She has led multiple events to push for the HEROES Act, extending unemployment, and ensuring our legislators do not forget or ignore the entertainment industry. Lindsey has been interviewed multiple times by both local and national news outlets and maintains a relationship with politicians from Local to National.

Local 26 now has a dozen collective bargaining agreements and a multitude of rate sheets for ongoing work that we do across the jurisdiction.  We have good relationships with all our employers and in the community.  We are a respected local in Michigan, across the country and within the International for our ongoing accomplishments, activism, progressive attitude, and participation. It’s not uncommon for women to equal or sometimes outnumber men on a call, and calls staffed with women only are becoming far less unusual. Approximately 1/3 of our current members are women, and that proportion carries through to referents as well.