Member Spotlight: Local 399 Driver Tony Steere

As featured in our April 2019 Newsreel – Click here to read the full April 2019 Newsreel

The most important and most powerful resource in every Union is its Members. They are not only the source of our collective power, they are the building blocks of our Union, ensuring the strength of our Local over the course of the past, present and future. With this Member Spotlight we caught up with 45-year Teamsters Local 399 Driver, Tony Steere. Well respected within the Industry, Tony has made a vibrant career for himself. His years of experience, love for his profession, and his respect for his fellow Union Sisters and Brothers is something to be highlighted for new and seasoned Teamster Members.  

Recruiting Tony for an article about himself wasn’t easy. Tony’s humility, coupled with his extensive experience working as a Driver, made him the perfect candidate. With 45 years under his belt as a Member of Local 399 and another 8-9 years working as a Driver in freight with Local 208 and Local 420, Tony is not only a Driver by trade but a Union man through and through.

When asked how he made the shift from over the road driving in freight to the Entertainment Industry, Tony replied, “I made the jump into the Entertainment Industry because I had a rather poor driving record at the time, and I was released from a company in Sun Valley in which I was driving pneumatic tanks. They released me and said come back in a year when my record was good.”

Anyone that knows Tony today would be hard pressed to believe anything but a stellar driving record from Mr. Steere. His impressive career in the Industry, and reputation for being an extremely thorough Driver when it comes to safety and the responsibility of the equipment in his care, would have just about anyone shocked to hear that was his start. Nonetheless, when taking a break from freight he contacted an old friend of his that was in Local 399 at the time to look for work.

“I knew a fellow who was in Local 399, he was much older than I was, and for years he told me to come over and I kept refusing because I enjoyed what I was doing.” Tony continued, “However, when I was out of work, I felt like I should go see him and so I met a Local 399 Business Agent at the time, and he asked me to tell him a bit about myself and my experience. The conversation ended with the Business Agent telling me to go home and wait for a call that night about a job for the next day. And I did. That very next day I went to work at 20th Century Fox.” 

Tony, just like many of the Local 399 Members at that time, suffered through Permits and being a Group 3, working back in freight here and there during the slow or hiatus seasons. It wasn’t too long after however, that Tony started to work more consistently, and he was able to join Local 399 in 1969 where he worked on Television shows pretty steadily. 

Back when Tony started with Local 399, the Studios still had Lot Seniority. Outside of becoming a Member of Local 399, Tony still needed to get 30 days at a specific Studio to join their Seniority roster.

“I was with 20th Century Fox and it took them a long time to hire me because they would keep me for 29 days and then they would lay me off. You had to work 30 days to be hired at that specific lot. I went through that about 7 or 8 times until finally someone called in sick, so I called in and they had to hire me. I think it was harder to get your days at that time because there wasn’t the work there is now. Regardless of skill level, it was the old guard that kept the jobs.  Back in the day we had maybe half the number of Members we have now.” Tony explained.

20th Century Fox ended up being a great place to work for Tony. He was able to work consistently on “M.A.S.H.” and “Room 222”. Also, outside of constant work, it was work that allowed him to expand his skillset on a variety of equipment -anything from construction equipment, to a skip loader, to a dump truck, to a water truck.

“I was blessed with a lot of experience over the years as a Driver. It was a big learning curve for me. It was on the job training. I had several jobs at the same time that were not all just in closed trucks. I had tankers, flat racks, live loads, livestock, So I got a variety of stuff. The flat beds especially.”

Not only did Tony invest his time in learning a variety of equipment, he also excitedly shared some of his work getting to be a stunt driver on a few productions over the years.

“Periodically I did stunt work because I could drive a truck and I had a Guild Card since 1980. I would get hired on occasion to drive a semi-truck doing stunt driving.”

When asked if there were any notable productions that were his particular favorites to do stunt work on, Tony paused, and with a big smile replied, “They were all my favorite! Are you kidding? I did some stunts on “Dallas” and I did a couple stunt jobs on “Clear and Present Danger” and “Patriot Games”. I can’t even remember some of the other TV shows. They were a day or two at the most. I could never earn a living out of it, but it was fun when I could do it.”

Tony spent a good portion of his career over the years as a Captain and eventually in 1978 he made the transition to Transportation Coordinator when “Dallas” started up again. What started as a Captain position on the show under Coordinator Jim Russell soon grew into the position of Coordinator when Jim left the show after they had returned to Los Angeles.

“’Dallas” was the longest TV show I worked on. I stayed there 9 years. At the end of my time on “Dallas” they were doing 30-33 episodes a year. We went to Texas for approximately 50-52 days, maybe 55 shooting days. There was not much prep involved, it was all practical locations.”

After his time on “Dallas”, Tony moved on to work on Stephen Cannell productions where he spent a couple of seasons while also working a lot at Warner Brothers.

“Every hiatus I was fortunate enough to get a picture somewhere and just go. I worked with many different Coordinators. A lot of the old timers knew me. I was always assigned a semi-truck and away we went. I did a lot of traveling nationwide. There are only 4 states I haven’t worked in – Alaska, Montana, Wisconsin and North Dakota. I loved every minute of traveling for work. Coming out of the freight business I was accustomed to the long hauls. Travel was one of the benefits for me and was one of the most attractive things that drew me to this business. Going somewhere you have never been with new faces, new environments and simply being able to take the truck somewhere you have never been, out there by yourself. I always enjoyed it.”

When asked if there were any favorite or especially challenging productions he worked on over the years, Tony immediately brought up his time working on “Clear and Present Danger”. It was shot down in Mexico and the scale of the production, coupled with having to get all of the equipment over the border and back, made it a complicated yet rewarding experience for Tony.  

“There were challenges with going out of the country because it required us to take everything we brought in, back out. On “Clear and Present Danger” we wrecked about 10 suburban’s and we had to take every one of those wrecks out of the country when we left. We were swapping parts, engines, doors and transmissions on all those cars so none of the numbers matched when we were at the border, making it a struggle to get them back across. And, of course, they all had bullet holes through them. In transit from Mexico City to the border the Federal police would stop these auto carriers and query them as to why they were destroyed. It was difficult to explain to them and a couple times in my limited Spanish I would show them the explosion on the inside of the door to show how it was caused so they had a better understanding. They were still very inquisitive about where we were and what we were doing.” Tony laughed.

When asked about his all-time favorite production to have worked on, Tony emphasized with full confidence that the finest and best picture, that was also the most fun to work on, was “Seabiscuit” with Coordinator Tommy Tancharoen. Tony described it as not only having a great and hardworking crew, but that they also had a great time together and travelled all over the country.  

Tony’s longstanding career in the Industry has allowed him to not only see a lot of this country, but it has also allowed him to see a lot of advancement in equipment over the years. Some out of the necessity to get the job done, and others to help protect everyone working on or around the equipment. As productions and crews grew bigger, the Industry needed to evolve to support the work with better equipment tailored to the complexities and intricacies of the Industry.

“People started making trucks for the industry. One of the very first was Creative Mobile Industries. Creative Mobile Studios’; Ronnie Baker, Rosenthal and Gene Levy, were the first to build this stuff custom. This was the early 1970’s. They were building and improving every year. Everyone that had tractors and trailers were customize them to accommodate grip, electric, camera, property effects, etc. The equipment did improve but only though the innovation and the risk that all these people took by spending the money to build it. It was a risk, but most of them did pretty well. Once one started doing it, others wanted to get in on the revenue and there was plenty of room for everyone. New equipment piecemealed out slowly and it even pushed the Majors to start building other equipment. They weren’t the innovators. The Studios had to follow suite due to the demand that was put on them. But it didn’t happen overnight, it was a long process.”

Tony further explained that when he started his career it wouldn’t be unusual to see grip, electric, property and effects all sharing production vans to haul their gear together. Nowadays each department has their own truck to accommodate for the larger loads. It was something many departments over the years began to demand and was eventually achieved, making the entire workflow more efficient.

“In the early-mid 70’s there were few lift gates on trailers and the trailers that had them were old and poorly maintained and were built with fairly early technology. There weren’t stake beds around, we just had a lot of pick-up trucks. The stake beds that were there at the time were ill-equipped. It was much more difficult to load and unload equipment. The stake beds started to come into effect out of necessity and they began to be equipped with much better and fancier lift gates. Soon after it blossomed into what we see today.”

With Tony seeing such vast changes over the years in terms of technology, it helped him to develop his own commitment to safety protocols when dealing with unfit equipment. As a Driver, he continually stressed that the responsibility is on you should something go wrong, and it’s important to be mindful and carefully check the equipment you are given to operate.

“You have to be careful about the equipment you’re provided because it can be inferior. I’ve had many occasions that I had to demand better equipment. I have even had times that I went to pick up equipment and had to spend my own money and get reimbursed because you don’t dare go down a highway without legal equipment. If something falls off and injures someone on the road, it’s all on you. You have to be assertive at times to make sure you have the right equipment, something I have always been a stickler about.

When asked if there was any other advice surrounding safety and equipment, Tony continued, “Don’t do anything illegal. Make sure you know the rules and understand what is required. That’s why the classes are so good. Anything that’s a safety rule or has been a requirement for the dos and don’ts, I highlight them all. Safety gear is there for your protection and if you’re not learning it, there’s a tremendous amount of liability if you do something illegal when operating a machine. It has caused deaths in the past. There are a lot of ways to find out if you are doing something incorrectly. People are sometimes afraid to throw a monkey wrench into things. But when it comes to safety, you are the only operator around.”

When it comes to new Local 399 Members, Tony had a lot of advice and knowledge to share. He also highlighted that over the years he has seen a shift in some of the culture of the Industry and the Union. When Tony began his career in the Industry, he didn’t feel that there was as much support from some of the older more experienced Members when he started. Nowadays however, he feels that people are more willing to help one another, share tips and assist when someone is struggling.

“There there are lots of men and women coming into this Union and this business that are very bright and very good workers and it’s encouraging. If you don’t know something, ask someone. Most of the Members now in my generation are willing to help people. It wasn’t always true when I got in, but today that’s not the case. There’s a better sense and consciousness that the working staff is helping one another. Treat the newer Members with the same respect as the older Members. They are there doing the same job. I can’t let myself watch anyone struggle. I’m always here to offer assistance if I can.”   

To sum up most of Tony’s work-related advice to new Members it would simply be:

  1. Present Yourself in a Professional Manner
  2. Know Your Craft – if you don’t know something, be open to learn
  3. Know Your Contract
  4. Don’t Turn Down Work
  5. Get Involved in your Union

“I would take a couple calls a day and even sometimes work on the weekends on “X-Files” just for straight time. It was extra dough that I could use and also just to keep working for the pension hours. You are getting those hours on straight time or overtime. It all helps your career.”

As Tony continued to offer his advice to new and longtime Local 399 Members, he switched gears a bit to focus more on the importance of the Union, especially in this Industry. Tony, having been with the Local through different administrations, contract cycles and industry fights, has seen the importance of what it means to not only be part of a Union but being an active participant.

“Be active in the Union. Find out what’s going on. If you have questions, ask, and take the time to know your contract. People have no clue what a task it is to sit across the table from the major studios to negotiate a contract. What Leo T. Reed did for all those years and now with Steve Dayan and his leadership; it is something that I never forget. What we have today with our wages, pension, health, welfare, medical, dental all that, I never forget that all those items have to be negotiated and fought for. And if you’re not there at the meetings supporting your leadership, I personally think it’s offensive.”  

Tony, quite notably, sits near the front row of every Union meeting. His support for his Union Brothers and Sisters as well as those that have led this Local to the success we enjoy today does not go unnoticed by such a committed Local 399 Member. His passion for being part of this organization stems from his true belief that we are stronger together.

“If we don’t support our Union it will be easier to break us. I hope years from now we are 6,000-7000 strong. If you don’t have unity, and a goal, then it is easier to break up. New Members have to be told that it’s the unity and support that will keep us strong. They can try to break up anything they want regardless of how many people are in it, but with unity, dedication and support, it won’t happen.”

Tony’s advice to Members stems from his passion for his career and the success he has experienced over his many years in the Industry. He has never taken the benefits, opportunities and hard work for granted.

“I had no idea I would make a career out of this. I was just hoping for a steady job. What moved me forward when I started was the need for a paycheck. It kept me going. More than that, I have always been fortunate to have the incentive to go a bit further on the job and try to offer advice for any experience I had. I like what I am doing, otherwise, I don’t think I would still be here. I am 71 years old, I don’t need to be here I just like it. I want to know I am doing the best I can.”

Tony mentioned his respect for Local 399 Coordinator Greg Van Dyke, currently one of our longest active Local 399 Members, as someone he has always looked up to and tried to mirror his career off of.

“One of the oldest guys still working is Greg Van Dyke. He does Criminal Minds. He started in 1963 or 1964. Greg is one of my inspirations. I saw the longevity of his career and his work ethic and I knew I wanted to be like him. I’m always inspired by people ready to work hard. I worked on many shows with him. He is 75 and he is still Coordinating.”

When concluding our time speaking with Tony, we asked what he was currently working on. He mentioned he will most likely be going back to work on “Lethal Weapon” in June, a show he has been on for the past three seasons, and currently he is working on a Feature Film with Coordinator Roger Bojarski. When asked if Tony would still consider taking a job that would get him back out on the open road, he simply smiled and replied, “In a heartbeat, I would take any job traveling around.”