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While the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) demanded sweeping changes to work conditions in their 2021 round of contract negotiations amid a larger nationwide labor resurgence, it’s unclear whether this zeitgeist will be replicated in other entertainment unions’ talks, several of which aren’t set to begin for another two years.
Not long after negotiations with studios began in May on a new IATSE Basic Agreement, which happens every three years, labor shortages across multiple industries and the “Great Resignation” — coined to describe a surge in workers quitting — began making headlines in earnest. As talks stalled this summer, IATSE members became increasingly vocal about working conditions, mobilizing on social media and overwhelmingly voting to authorize a strike if their union leaders deemed one necessary (thus joining the 100,000-plus workers that threatened to or went on strike in October, leading some to nickname the month “Striketober”).
Now, as IATSE members are learning more about the tentative agreement their union reached with studios Oct. 16, averting a threatened strike at the last minute, some are saying the reforms included in the deal aren’t radical enough and are urging members to vote “no” on ratification. Still, IATSE Locals’ leaders including the largest, Local 600, the Cinematographers Guild, and Local 700, the Editors Guild, have recommended a “yes” vote. (The leaders of all 13 Locals are expected to recommend a “yes” vote, a source previously told The Hollywood Reporter.)
IATSE says gains include 10-hour turnaround times (i.e., the downtime between workdays) and 3 percent annual scale wage increases, but some members want longer daily turnaround times and higher wage increases, among other improvements. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, hopeful that when the full details of the agreement are revealed to members, the union will provide a “Hollywood ending,” as union international president Matthew Loeb said of the deal after workers demonstrated solidarity throughout negotiations. Members expect the ratification vote to take place before mid-November.
Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation, says the IATSE negotiations should be viewed in the context of an overall labor “awakening” in the U.S. “That was fueled in part by the pandemic, but it’s also an expression of the frustration that workers have felt not just in the past couple years, but for decades when they’re seeing more and more of the dollars that they’re [generating] through their labor go to the wealthiest among us,” says Smith.
“There’s absolutely a resurgence,” agrees IATSE Local 700 national executive director Cathy Repola. “You can only push people down so far, and at some point they are going to rise up again.” She believes this current climate was the result of multiple factors: “I think social media certainly creates an ability for people to communicate across the country what different unions are doing and get their word out in a different way than traditional print press. I think some of it was absolutely the pandemic; I think people had a chance to reflect on their lives and their priorities and a desire to reset things a bit. I think some of it [stems] from the protests that were going on over the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Underscoring this engagement, Local 700 on Oct. 24 held an online meeting, that lasted roughly four and a half hours, to explain and answer questions about the tentative Basic Agreement. An estimated 1,900 members turned up with hundreds of questions.
Loeb & Loeb entertainment labor practice group chair Ivy Kagan Bierman, who handles guild and union talks for film, TV and digital companies, says that “we are in a period in our industry where the guilds and the employees are feeling more empowered.” She points when the Writers Guild of America successfully persuaded its members to fire their agents during the union’s campaign against business practices including packaging fees as an example of this emboldenment. However, Kagan Bierman adds that when it comes to the so-called “Great Resignation” and worker shortages, she’s seeing industry workers “eager to get back to work after such a lengthy period of shutdowns.”
On Oct. 26, IATSE announced it had reached a tentative deal on its Area Standards Agreement, which generally covers work outside the Los Angeles and New York production hubs and whose ratification vote will happen simultaneously with that of the Basic Agreement. Talks will begin on the union’s Animation Guild collective bargaining deal after IATSE’s new Basic Agreement is in place. Teamsters Local 399, too, will soon start negotiations — a date hasn’t yet been set — for its “Black Book” Agreement (it covers studio transportation drivers, dispatchers, mechanics and animal trainers and wranglers), Location Manager Agreement and Casting Director Agreement, all of which are now extended until Nov. 15.
Preparation for Local 399’s upcoming talks has been ongoing for months. “Obviously, like the rest of the country, our members are watching what’s happening in the labor movement,” and especially in IATSE’s latest round of negotiations, says Local 399 organizer and recording secretary Lindsay Dougherty. “A lot of our members work side by side with IATSE members, so they’re standing in solidarity. Yes, definitely, that’s going to seep over into our negotiations.” Dougherty notes her union’s upcoming negotiations will be especially significant because she’s anticipating they will mark the first time Local 399 will bargain with major streaming companies; Dougherty imagines members will especially want to tackle cost-of-living increases in the upcoming talks.
Whether a wider swathe of Hollywood labor will call for radical change in future talks with the studios will largely depend on what IATSE procures in its final deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), argues University of Southern California history professor Steven J. Ross, an expert on working-class and labor history. “If the rank and file win on this one, that is, if they do go back to the table and get a change [of] at least 12 hours between daily shoots, then I think you’re going to see more action from below-the-line people in all the entertainment unions,” he says. “But that’s unclear right now.”
Chapman University assistant professor of film studies Leah Aldridge, who studies below-the-line issues, is skeptical that other unions will be able to use social media as effectively as IATSE has to garner public support in future talks. “I think that IATSE folks appear to have more in common with the daily laborer, and so consequently things like social media really help their demands resonate,” she says.
Major basic agreement negotiations for the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA remain nearly two years away, and those unions will likely determine specific priorities and strategies closer to those talks. Still, adds WGA East executive director Lowell Peterson, the streaming economy and its discontents — one of IATSE’s key battles in its 2021 Basic Agreement negotiations was procuring more streaming compensation — are here to stay. “I think every member of every entertainment union wants us to address the ways in which the shift to streaming affects their work lives. IATSE confronted an entertainment industry that is transforming itself,” Peterson says in a statement, noting the multiple ways that a shift to streaming affects writers. “As the companies produce more and more content for streaming, they increase pressure and workload on all employees. Employers always want people to do more work for less money, and a union’s job is to resist that.”
IATSE benefited from a break in the traditional “media blackout” that occurs during negotiations, with social media support that approximately tripled the union’s Instagram following and doubled its Twitter following. Moreover, its talks coincided with the industry going into overdrive to make up for pandemic-related production pauses. The timing of other labor groups’ talks may not be as favorable.
Says Local 700’s Repola: “I certainly hope it doesn’t go back to the way it was. The real strength of a union is in the rank-and-file membership and their willingness to stay engaged and have their voices be heard. That is the only true way to effectuate change.”
Contract Talks on the Horizon
— Teamsters Local 399 “Black Book” deal, Location Manager deal and Casting Director deal EXTENDED TO NOV. 15
— WGA Theatrical and TV Basic Agreement EXPIRES AFTER MAY 1, 2023
— SAG-AFTRA Basic Agreement and TV Agreement EXPIRES JUNE 30, 2023
— DGA Basic Agreement EXPIRES AFTER JUNE 30, 2023
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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