A long-lost, real-life episode from the set of “Army Wives” is nearing its conclusion.
The cast of characters includes an out-of-state truck driver, organized labor, broadcasting giant ABC, and, naturally, money.
And in a secondary plot twist, the national solidarity of one of the country’s biggest unions gets called into question.
One of the final scenes played out a few weeks ago. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last month affirmed a decision awarding back pay to an “Army Wives” driver who complained he had been discriminated against by Teamsters Local 509 because he didn’t belong to the South Carolina union.
The decision capped a protracted legal skirmish that broke out off camera about six years ago.
“Army Wives,” was a fictional Lifetime TV cable drama about the personal lives of U.S. military families. The series was filmed locally from 2006 to 2013, and staffers reached out to Cayce-based Local 509 for a list of qualified union drivers as production was cranking up. They negotiated a collective bargaining agreement for the first two seasons.
“Army Wives” typically required 15 to 20 truckers a day when it was filming, according to a court filing. That proved to be a challenge early on, because many Local 509 drivers had committed to another film project.
So the crew brought in backups to help fill the void, including Wilmington resident Thomas Troy Coghill, who belonged to the Teamsters in North Carolina.
Infighting reportedly began within the union when Local 509 drivers finished the other film job only to find part-time work on “Army Wives.” Their business agent, L.D. Fletcher, complained to Lifetime owner ABC. He even threatened to picket production if the show didn’t give his members full-time employment ahead of out-of-state drivers, including fellow Teamsters like Coghill, according to court filings.
Despite the pressure, the show kept him on the payroll. But the gig was up when work began for the third season. At that point, “Army Wives” had signed a new labor pact that effectively required the use of South Carolina Teamsters. Representatives from the show would later testify about the pressures of hiring residents in order to qualify for tax breaks the state offers the movie industry.
With Coghill on the outside looking in, the transportation coordinator for “Army Wives” offered a solution: move to Charleston and join Local 509. That way he would be included on the “movie referral list” of eligible drivers the show could hire under the agreement.
Coghill tried in January 2009.
“The union returned the application and check at the end of the month along with a letter explaining that no new names were being added to the referral list,” according to an Aug. 21 court document.
Coghill filed a formal complaint, with help from lawyers from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. The issue went before S.C. Administrative Law Judge Michael Marchionese, who ruled in 2011 that the referral list “constituted an exclusive hiring hall arrangement” that benefited only Local 509 members, a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
He also said the union owed Coghill about $55,500 in back pay, plus interest.
The Teamsters challenged the decision before the National Labor Relations Board, which affirmed the South Carolina ruling in its entirety. The U.S. Court of Appeals, in turn, took up the case in April. It rejected all of the union’s arguments in upholding the NLRB’s findings a few weeks ago.
“The record is filled with evidence suggesting that Local 509 was managing an exclusive hiring hall open only to its members and that it refused to refer Coghill for employment because he was not,” the D.C. court said in its 15-page ruling.
It’s not quite a wrap, as they say in show business. The union’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment. The National Right to Work foundation said last week that the Teamsters has asked that the appeals court judges rehear its arguments. No decision has been made.
“Frankly, this all looks like stalling tactics designed to delay the payment the Teamsters bosses owes Mr. Coghill for violating his rights and costing him work,” said Patrick Semmens, the legal foundation’s vice president for public information.
Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.