The executive board of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators on Sunday declared a vote of no confidence against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, right, shown outside the Mosaic Pre-K Center on Sept. 21.
The executive board of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators on Sunday declared a vote of no confidence against New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, right, shown outside the Mosaic Pre-K Center on Sept. 21.
The executive board of the union representing more than 6,400 of New York City’s school leaders passed a unanimous vote of no confidence against Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on Sunday for what it called officials’ “failure to lead New York City through the safe and successful reopening of schools.”
The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators is calling on the mayor to cede control of the city’s education department for the duration of the public health crisis, and for both officials to seek swift intervention from New York state.
“During this health crisis, school leaders have lost trust and faith in Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza to support them in their immense efforts and provide them with the guidance and staffing they need,” CSA President Mark Cannizzaro said in a statement. “Quite simply, we believe the City and DOE need help from the State Education Department, and we hope that the mayor soon realizes why this is necessary.”
The announcement comes just days before the much-anticipated and twice-delayed reopening of the city’s public schools: In-person learning is set to begin for elementary school students on Sept. 29, and for middle and high schoolers on Oct. 1. (Pre-K students and students with disabilities could return to school starting on Sept. 21.)
The union laid out its justification in a three-page declaration provided to NPR. It includes dozens of complaints about city officials’ handling of staffing, equipment and communications related to the resumption of in-person schooling.
The mayor’s office did not respond to NPR’s request for comment. New York City Department of Education Press Secretary Miranda Barbot said in a statement that the city has worked with its labor partners to “navigate completely uncharted waters and accomplish our shared goal of serving students” for the past six months and would continue to do so.
“This week, more kids will be safely sitting in New York City classrooms than in any other major American city — a testament to city leadership and our educators’ commitment to their students, and the importance of in-person education,” Barbot said.
Among the union’s grievances are accusations that city officials entered into “grossly irresponsible” staffing agreements that fueled concern throughout the summer and, as of Friday, have left elementary schools some 1,200 teachers short for the first day of in-person learning.
The union says de Blasio and Carranza have not publicly stated how many additional teachers are needed by Oct. 1 or released a clear plan for providing them. It said there was a “lack of transparency” about whether the additional teachers hired by the department of education are legitimately qualified or prepared.
Several concerns are specific to remote learning, such as those saying officials have not provided schools with enough electronic devices or relevant professional development.
And others center on the timing and transparency of city officials’ communications. For instance, the union said officials missed their own deadline for providing ventilation reports to school districts, did not submit their critical safety plan to the state on time and announced guidance on outdoor learning too late for school leaders to implement it.
“Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza have provided school leaders with late, inadequate, and inconsistent guidance throughout the pandemic, often creating situations where school leaders learn of policy through the press or their teaching staff, and often creating situations where school leaders must make decision in the absence of guidance and then reverse those decisions and alter plans when guidance is finally released,” union leaders wrote.
Educators’ unions have been raising concerns for weeks about the ability of the nation’s largest school system to safely reopen for in-person instruction, particularly when it comes to safety, staffing and logistics.
On Friday, the United Federation of Teachers reached an agreement with the Department of Education allowing more of its members to work remotely.
The CSA said that the “last-minute” agreement, made after many schools had already been in session, means schools will not have adequate staff in the building throughout the school day.
“School leaders want school buildings reopened and have been tirelessly planning to welcome back students since the end of last school year,” Cannizzaro said. “They must now look staff, parents, and children in the eye and say that they have done all they can to provide a safe and quality educational experience, but given the limited resources provided them, this is becoming increasingly difficult.”
Union County, the rural northeastern Oregon county home to the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, voluntarily returned to Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus reopening plan Wednesday.
The county is the first in Oregon to step backward under the governor’s gradual reopening guidelines. The move came after the county recorded a giant spike in coronavirus cases, from 22 on Sunday to 242 as of Wednesday.
Union County had entered Phase 2 of Brown’s reopening plan June 5. Under stricter Phase 1 regulations, gatherings are limited to 25 people or fewer, and churches are not allowed to meet in large groups.
State public health officials have linked the county’s outbreak to Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City, next to La Grande.
The Northeast Oregon Joint Information Center, which helps coordinate Union County’s emergency response, issued a statement Wednesday explaining the county’s decision to return to Phase 1.
“This decision was made due to the significant rise in confirmed COVID-19 case numbers, concerns for the protection of the community, and concerns for impacts to Grande Ronde Hospital,” the statement said.
“Voluntary adherence by citizens will apply to individuals, businesses and organizations, although many have already voluntarily returned to the Phase 1 guidance.”
Union County has a population of about 27,000. La Grande is the hub of the county, said Suzannah Moore-Hemann, executive director of the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
She believes voluntarily moving back to Phase 1 is a good idea for the community’s safety, but said the move will be painful for the economy.
“We just entered Phase 2 two weeks ago,” Moore-Hemann said. “That’s not even enough time to start generating revenue to make up for the first closure. I’m sure a lot of the businesses are going back to experiencing a really drastically reduced revenue stream.”
The chamber serves as a source of information, and Moore-Hemann said the ever-changing news means she doesn’t have all the answers to the questions that business owners are asking.
“It’s really anxiety inducing — the unknown, feeling the stress and hardship for our businesses,” Moore-Hemann said. “You almost feel helpless when you’re thinking, ‘I wish there was more that we can do.’ I wish I could give more concrete answers.‘”
Gabi McCauley grew up and lives in Union County and worked as a nurse for 12 years in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. She said in a small community like La Grande, the high volume of cases could devastate the community.
“It’s just going to be so bad if they don’t get it under control,” McCauley said.
State and county public health officials say they are taking steps to stop the virus from spreading far beyond Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.
Tom Jeanne, the state’s deputy epidemiologist, said Tuesday that at least 236 cases are linked to the church.
Despite the severity of the outbreak, Tim Heider, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, said the state was confident in the number of case investigators and contact tracers it had responding to the outbreak.
Most congregants have already been tested for the virus. Contact tracers are working to identify close contacts of those congregants that may have been exposed, but Heider could not say how many close contacts would be tested for the virus.
Jeanne said the Oregon Health Authority provided 10 employees to help the county’s five contact tracers. He said two of those state workers were on the ground in Union County and the other eight were working remotely. Neighboring counties are also helping, he said.
Joseph Fiumara, county public health director for Umatilla County, said his county was contacted by Union County Friday and asked whether they would be able to offer support as the county grappled with what was growing into a serious outbreak.
“We have put that offer out there, and we are willing and able to provide some support if they need us,” Fiumara said.
Union County hasn’t recorded any deaths from coronavirus so far, but McCauley and other residents are worried that will change. So far, at least five people have been hospitalized, officials have said.
Jeanne said if capacity becomes a concern at the local Grand Ronde Hospital, state officials will work to transfer patients to other hospitals in eastern Oregon, Portland or Boise.
The governor expressed support for Union County’s decision to move back to Phase 1 in a statement issued by her office.
“We support local officials in their decision to safeguard the public health of county residents,” said Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown.
Leaders from Lighthouse Pentecostal Church have not responded to various and repeated attempts at communication from The Oregonian/OregonLive. One faith leader declined to speak Tuesday.
The church’s Facebook page posted a video Tuesday morning, in which Pastor James Parker held a morning devotional prayer and seemed to address the COVID-19 pandemic, without acknowledging it by name.
“I appreciate everybody being cooperative with what was decided and doing your best to help,” Parker said in the video. “In the end, our fruit will show that what we’re doing is the right thing, and more people need to do what we did. The more people that do the right thing, the easier it’s going to be for the rest of the world to combat this pandemic that we’re going through.”
Parker did not further explain what “the right thing” is, and the church did not respond to a request for clarification.
A now-deleted Facebook post from late May explained the church was going to reopen its doors to congregants Memorial Day weekend “in accordance” with President Donald Trump’s demands that states allow churches to open.
A second Facebook post that has also been deleted showed hundreds of worshipers dancing, singing and moving around in close proximity in a video uploaded May 24.
The decision to open the church’s doors came amid statewide pressure from some faith leaders to resume services.
Ten churches sued the governor in early May, arguing that her social distancing guidelines were no longer justified. A Baker County Circuit Judge ruled in favor of the churches and stood by his decision on May 26, declaring Brown’s orders “null and void.” The Oregon Supreme Court ordered the judge to throw out his preliminary injunction June 12.
Boyle, the governor’s spokesman, said Brown hasn’t set out plans to cite churches that do not follow stay-home restrictions.
“Any enforcement decisions would be made at the local level,” Boyle said in an email. “However, at this time, our focus is on making sure that members of the community are getting access to the health care they need and that the county has the resources it needs to address this outbreak.”
McCauley said she hopes pastors who decided to hold services against Brown’s orders will be cited.
“Point to me in the Bible where Jesus said go out and infect everybody,” McCauley said.
Henry Larson, another Union County resident, said other churches and local groups followed the stay-home restrictions, and the decision to reopen Lighthouse Pentecostal Church was not broadly supported among local residents.
“As a fellow religious person, it shocks me to know that they would put their needs above the safety and wellbeing of the entire community,” Larson said.
Toxicity in the workplace is often invisible, but actor and producer Gabrielle Union says she’s never seen it defined more clearly than in her first moments on the set of the reality competition show “America’s Got Talent.”
It was when the newly minted judge stood on a closed soundstage and was enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, to which she’s been severely allergic her entire life. Producers, fellow judges and set assistants looked on unfazed as series creator and star Simon Cowell finished his smoke while Union’s respiratory system went haywire.
That moment would be one of many in which Union says she unsuccessfully raised issues about the physical and emotional toxicity at “AGT,” produced by FremantleMedia and Cowell’s Syco Entertainment, which has aired for 15 seasons on NBC.
Union has walked many sets in show business over her 25 years, from her turn in the iconic teen movie “Bring It On” to leading the critically praised BET drama “Being Mary Jane.” But something shifted in how she viewed her career when she hit 40. She finally learned self-acceptance, she says, and no longer sought approval from a business that was increasingly being called out for the way it marginalized women and minorities.
“There were so many spaces in this industry where I had to compartmentalize myself to feel like I was worthy of work,” Union tells Variety. “In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am. I wanted to create projects and be a part of things, to have personal and professional relationships that brought me peace, joy, grace and allowed for compassion.”
All of those newfound requirements seemed to converge in the opportunity from “AGT” that came in the spring of 2019. The show had long anchored NBC’s summer schedule to top ratings and social media fanfare. Union was excited to discover emerging talent, and was already building a production company of her own to embrace outsiders, she says.
“I signed up for the experience of being a part of a show that hails itself as the biggest stage in the world. Super diverse, and one about giving people an opportunity to shine where they otherwise probably wouldn’t,” Union says, adding wryly: “What could go wrong?”
Last September, two months after the finale of Union’s inaugural season, Variety reported that she and fellow judge Julianne Hough had been dismissed from the show. Both had contractual options to return for another season, and both were survived by their male counterparts, executive producer and lead judge Cowell and comedian Howie Mandel. In the days following Union’s exit, Variety published an explosive report about the culture at “AGT” during her tenure — one marked by complaints of racially charged incidents at the hands of contestants, producers and guest judge Jay Leno. Cowell was seen as downplaying complaints and fostering a bad environment, like the smoking that violated public health laws and made Union ill. An internal investigation of Fremantle, Syco and NBC is ongoing. She remains incredulous that the entities did not take stronger action to safeguard the staff of “AGT.”
Until now, Union has stayed silent about what went down.
“At the end of all this, my goal is real change — and not just on this show but for the larger parent company. It starts from the top down,” she says. “My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”
Fremantle, Syco and NBC issued a joint statement in response to this story, saying they “immediately engaged an outside investigator who conducted more than 30 interviews to review the issues raised by Ms. Union. While the investigation has demonstrated an overall culture of diversity, it has also highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved.” Details of these new processes were not immediately available.
One insider close to the show says some changes have been implemented, including the installment of sensitivity training and outlets to help screen and elevate issues to human resources more efficiently. Those changes are already in place on the new season of “AGT,” which premiered May 26.
In light of Union’s complaints and another incident involving actor Orlando Jones on its series “American Gods,” Fremantle is the subject of an ongoing investigation from actors union SAG-AFTRA.
“Since we were first made aware of the probe into the allegations made by Gabrielle Union last December, we have been fully cooperative with SAG-AFTRA and remain committed to getting to the facts. We also look forward to doing the same for ‘American Gods’ if and when requested to do so,” says a Fremantle spokesperson.
Union’s complaints joined a collection of larger cultural issues surrounding NBCUniversal, from its handling of the Matt Lauer sexual abuse and harassment scandal to accusations that its former news division chairman, Andy Lack, quashed Ronan Farrow’s reporting on convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.
“There are so many people who are committed to making NBCUniversal and Comcast different, who truly want to be a part of the solution and on the right side of history,” says Union, who thinks NBC is hardly alone as a media institution in need of an overhaul. “In the same breath, there are some people who want the wheels of change to come to a grinding halt because they feel that their privilege is being challenged.”
As marginalized talent, Union says the decision to complain about Cowell’s smoking on her first day was a dire choice for someone “coming onto a set and you are literally met with the very definition of a toxic work environment, and it’s being carried out by the most powerful person on the production.”
Union says she hesitantly addressed the matter with producers, who acknowledged that complaints had been made about Cowell’s smoking in the past but, effectively, nothing was going to change.
“I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight. It was a cold that lingered, and turned into bronchitis, because I couldn’t shake it. It impacted my voice, which affects my ability to do my job,” she says. To make matters worse, Union says her constant runny nose rattled Mandel, someone open about his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and germophobia, who sat to her right onstage.
Mandel did not comment on the matter.
“It was challenging to tend to my illness without being made to feel like I’m responsible for my own sickness. It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered. I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed. I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to,” she says.
Union confronted a question she’s faced many times over her career, particularly as a woman of color: “Do I cave? I didn’t feel like myself; I’m shape-shifting to make myself more palatable. I’m contorting myself into something I don’t recognize. I had to look at myself and say, ‘Do you want to keep it easy? Or do you want to be you, and stand up?’ Because I’m not the only one being poisoned at work.”
“In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am. I wanted to have personal and professional relationships that brought me peace, joy, grace and allowed for compassion.” Gabrielle Union
Cowell says through a spokesperson that “when he was directly informed of the smoking complaint during the first couple of days of the season, he immediately changed his behavior and the issue was never raised again.” An individual familiar with the internal investigation of “AGT” says the matter was addressed, but the investigation hasn’t concluded that Cowell’s indoor smoking has stopped entirely.
Weeks later, Union was shocked by an incident involving guest judge and NBC royalty Jay Leno. While filming a commercial interstitial in the “AGT” offices, she says the former “Tonight Show” host made a crack about a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant. The joke was widely perceived as perpetuating stereotypes about Asian people eating dog meat.
“My first big interview in this industry, the first person who allowed me to come on their talk show, was Jay Leno. I’ve always held him in high regard, but I was not prepared for his joke,” Union says. “I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist.”
Union’s first instinct was to confront Leno directly, but she demurred, saying she was “going to guess there’s a corporate protocol.” In reality, she found, nothing happened. The reaction from production was one she would hear repeatedly throughout the season: “We’ll delete it. We’ll edit it out.” Union says this enraged her. Leno declined to comment.
“You cannot edit out what we just experienced. There is not an edit button in my brain or in my soul. To experience this kind of racism at my job and there be nothing done about it, no discipline, no companywide email, no reminder of what is appropriate in the workplace?” she says.
Union also noted that the show did not have a standing policy of using contestants’ preferred pronouns.
“We’re doing a show that is talking about a global audience, and we’re not even asking for preferred pronouns? We should never be put in a position where we are guessing, not when we know better,” she says. “And again, no checks and balances. Everyone is allowed to operate without consequence or accountability, and it sends a message that this kind of thing is not only tolerated but encouraged.”
Sources also told Variety that Union’s rotating hairstyles were labeled by production as “too black” for mass audiences. At the time, an insider told Variety that Union had received notes to keep the continuity in her hairstyles. The accusation resurfaced a trending Twitter topic, #HairLove, as a celebration of black hair.
Union would not address that specific charge due to the ongoing investigation. In a joint statement, the producers of “AGT” said their ongoing investigation has thus far concluded that “no one associated with the show made any insensitive or derogatory remarks about Ms. Union’s appearance, and that neither race nor gender was a contributing factor in the advancement or elimination of contestants at any time.”
Union did say the show was ill-equipped to give all contestants equal attention in the hair and makeup chair — a recurring problem in many productions when it comes to minorities.
“Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment, and then some are left to dangle,” Union says. “When they hit that stage for the opportunity of a lifetime, they want to put their best foot forward and have all of the confidence that everyone else has. When you are making the conscious decisions in hiring, and failing to recognize that you have whole departments that lack the necessary skill set to provide adequate services to all of that diversity that you are touting, you are creating an unequal and discriminatory experience.”
An individual familiar with “AGT” says the hair and makeup staff is composed of 25 full-time artists, roughly half of whom are people of color representing people of Asian, Latinx and African American descent.
One of the most distressing incidents Union recalls is that of a white male contestant whose act involved transforming into various famous singers through quick changes.
“At the very beginning of his act, he put on black gloves to [represent] a black performer,” Union says. She was concerned, to say the least, that any expression of blackface — historically offensive caricatures of black and brown people performed by whites and often using dark paint — was not immediately shut down.
“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,” she says, referring to an event in 2013 in which Hough was photographed at a Halloween party with darkened skin, in imitation of African American actor Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black.”
“I’d like to trust her at her word that she learned her lesson, and has educated herself amid the consequences she faced and is hopefully a better person. But you would think that perhaps the show and NBC might be more conscientious in exposing that, and it would be taken seriously. I took it seriously,” she says. Hough did not respond to a request for comment.
Union says the contestant’s act was flagged as problematic before he hit the stage, but he was cleared to proceed and audition before the judges and audience.
Once again, she found herself “waiting for there to be some mechanism that kicks in, to protect an audience of 4,000 people in a Pasadena auditorium that just watched that — all of the production, all of the other contestants, the judges. There was nothing in place. They did not think enough about how we would experience this blatantly racist act that, as a company, they have established that they take seriously,” she says.
Union’s raising of this topic comes with eerie timeliness, given the Tuesday resurfacing of a 20-year-old “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which former cast member Jimmy Fallon imitated comedian Chris Rock in full blackface.
The clip was used to illustrate what one Twitter user said was hypocrisy on NBC’s part, for firing former anchor Megyn Kelly for defending race appropriation in Halloween costumes while “The Tonight Show” host Fallon continued in his role. Fallon apologized shortly after the sketch inspired the trending topic #jimmyfallonisoverparty.
After she wrapped season 14 of “AGT,” Union said she discussed her issues with NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, who thanked her for sharing what she calls the production’s “blind spots.” A spokesperson for Meyer confirmed the conversation but did not comment further.
Union’s exit caused mixed reactions. Hough, judge Heidi Klum and show host Terry Crews said publicly that their experiences were different from Union’s. Crews faced the most backlash: Detractors pointed out Union’s support of him when he came forward, as one of the first male victims among the #MeToo movement, over an encounter where he was allegedly groped by a male talent agent. Union says she was “disappointed” by his statements about his time with “AGT,” but maintains she will always defend him. Crews later apologized to her on Twitter.
Former “AGT” judges Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern decried the environment created by Cowell. Stern said the show was designed to treat women as disposable, and Osbourne echoed the sentiment, calling it a “boys club.” Union didn’t necessarily agree, but was surprised that a personality as brash and critical as Cowell would deflect criticism of his own set.
“I never thought of him as a shrinking violet. I thought he dished out very direct criticism and commentary over the years. So I felt very comfortable giving direct feedback about the things that I thought needed changing and addressing. I assumed that as a businessperson, and seeing that I was by far the No. 1 judge, he would take it in stride and make the necessary adjustments. And we would come back to work, ready to go,” she says.
Cowell’s spokesperson says, “Simon does appreciate and respect feedback,” pointing to the smoking complaint.
According to ratings group Nielsen Social, Union was the top personality on all of network television while her season of “AGT” was on air, specifically in social media engagement, which she was contractually obligated to deliver.
“The investigation has not shown that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had any bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract,” Fremantle, Syco and NBC said in their statement.
Throughout the turbulent experience, Union was reminded of the words of a former teacher at UCLA, where she studied sociology.
“I had a professor who told me that racism is an issue for people who have to experience it every day. If you don’t have to experience it every day, it’s a nonissue. And that was never more true than in this case,” she says. “When you talk about diversity, there is very little diversity behind the scenes to match all of the diversity that is in the audience on-site, at home watching and the contestants. There are so many blind spots. Your solution can’t be an edit button.”
The struggle has taken its toll on Union, who acknowledges the benefits afforded her thanks to her successful career and high profile.
“If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband and I have, what is the point of making it? What is the point of having a seat at the table and protecting your privilege when you’re not doing s— to help other people? It’s absolutely terrifying to speak truth to power about anything. I’m trying not to be terrified, and some days are better than others,” she says.
Activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke warns of the consequences of taking on the role of “truth-teller” publicly and within slow-changing institutions.
“What happens often is that the person who tells the truth, we build off of that truth and we make changes and shift policy — but we don’t care for the material life of the truth-teller. Who protects Gabrielle Union?” says Burke. “We must make sure we protect our truth-tellers so that new ones come forward. She’s a person who is going to be physically uncomfortable not standing in her truth. It’s important to have people like that in your workplace and your life.”
Burke also encourages people to remember the cost. “We can tell a hero’s story, but it’s exhausting being that person all the time. What is the label she now has? You know there are executives who will say, ‘She was a bit of a problem on that other thing,’” Burke says.
For Union and many other Hollywood figures representing marginalized and intersectional groups, issues of race in show business and in the violent streets of America aren’t separate matters. On the day of Union’s conversation with Variety, video footage of the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was splashed across cable news and the internet.
“When it’s easier to come up with excuses of why someone is murdered in cold blood, and protect the perpetrators, I don’t know how we get to you seeing me as an equal in the office. I can’t separate the two, because I don’t have the luxury as a black woman in America. I take all of this experience with me everywhere,” she says.
Union has never shied away from sharing her personal struggles with the wider world, to a healing effect. She was raped and beaten at gunpoint at the age of 19, a harrowing experience that turned her book tour for the 2017 memoir “We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True” into widely attended discussions of black female identity and advocacy for women who have been sexually assaulted. She’s also shared her journey with surrogacy in welcoming her 1-year-old daughter Kaavia James Union Wade, and provided a huge signal boost for trans acceptance in openly embracing stepdaughter Zaya, whose father is Union’s husband Dwyane Wade.
“With all of the love comes the hate too,” Union says of Zaya’s journey.” It’s watching the love handle the hate that has been encouraging. We’re just loving and accepting our kids, which is not revolutionary. To some people it’s nuts. For those people who have spoken out so publicly against our family,” many more have rallied in support of the family, Union says. “I’m not standing on my own. The cavalry is arriving, and they are unafraid to stand in their truth and not be compromising when we look at right and wrong.”
Privilege does not shield her from everything, she admits.
“It’s interesting — when my husband and I enter into spaces where they are not used to seeing black faces, there is a freezing of sorts. From an airport lounge to a party or daring to walk through our own neighborhood where we pay taxes, not wearing clothes that reveal our faces quick enough,” she says. “LeBron James is arguably one of the most famous people in Los Angeles, and it still didn’t stop somebody from writing ‘N—a’ on the door of his $20 million Brentwood mansion. You’re still a n—a. They’re going to remind you of who you are, and your fame and your money only goes so far.”
One antidote she’s found has been bringing marginalized voices to the forefront with her production company, I’ll Have Another, which she runs with development head Holly Shakoor Fleischer.
Union’s creative reputation speaks for itself, says her former director and co-star Chris Rock, who cast her in his 2014 comedy “Top Five.” Rock says Union is “one of the smartest, most brutally honest people I know. She also happens to be a great actress who not only brings her talent but also lends credibility and authenticity to anything she’s in. Anyone would be lucky to work with Gabrielle.”
As a producer, Union says she’s “so much more excited and motivated to put other people on and create opportunities to get their stories told. And to get paid! And actually be effective and listened to.”
Union’s slate is stacked, with two feature pitches sold to both Universal Pictures, and another two at Netflix. Both Netflix titles are vehicles for Union to star in, including an adaptation of the best-seller “The Perfect Find” in which Union will play a late-blooming beauty journalist who sparks with the younger son of her employer. Stuart Ford’s AGC Studios is financing. At Sony’s Screen Gems label, she has an untitled romantic comedy from writer-director Chester Tam. That follows an African American woman and a recently divorced Asian-American man whose love connection shakes up their respective families.
In series development is “Afro.Punks” at HBO Max, and the YA adaptation “500 Words or Less” at Amazon Studios, featuring a female protagonist who’s half-Chinese and half-white. There’s also a bikini bar dramedy “Tips” at Spectrum, and queer relationship drama set at FreeForm. At Quibi, she’s placed the comedy “Black Coffee,” about a basketball player turned barista. Union is also the producer and star of “LA’s Finest,” a spinoff centered on her original character from the “Bad Boys” films. The show’s second season hits June 8 on Spectrum, and will air on Fox this fall.
While she’s in charge, she is not immune to familiar and antiquated notes. “People thought I was crazy to hire or champion Jessica Alba months after she gave birth,” Union says of her co-star and fellow EP. “I was asked, ‘How are you going to have an action show with a breast- feeding mom? Are you crazy?’ But what drove Jessica out of [the] business is not what’s going to keep me from hiring her.”
Union is excited to prove that two marginalized women can carry a series as stars and leaders, and create a healthy and successful workplace in the process.
“I know it’s scary to stick your neck out, and get an ounce of power and have to share it,” she says. “It’s not what we’re taught, but you don’t have to sacrifice your soul to do it. There’s another way, and I’m committed to finding it.”
Major League Baseball and the Players Association are in their second week of negotiating terms on a modified season that would begin in early July and wrap up sometime in late October or early November. On Thursday, the union formally responded to the league’s 67-page safety and testing protocol proposal with some potential modifications.
According to Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal, the union’s counter-proposal included notes on testing frequency, protections for high-risk players and their families, and sanitization protocols. Joel Sherman of the New York Post, meanwhile, tweeted that players were hoping for alterations that would enable them to shower at stadiums and to access hydrotherapy and other preparation and recovery tools that the league’s proposal had prohibited due to the risk of infection.
The health provisions imposed to protect players and other essential personnel are considered one of the two main hurdles the two sides must clear in order for a season to occur. The other is player compensation, with owners hoping that players will agree to an amended deal that will see revenues split evenly this year. The union has publicly pushed back against that idea.