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On Sept. 18, as industry power brokers were getting ready for the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast, an estimated 2,800 crafts workers in Local 700 — which represents Hollywood editors — participated in a roughly four-hour remote call to discuss options if their umbrella union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, were to call on tens of thousands of its 150,000 members to strike. At least one other local held a similar call over the awards weekend.
IATSE, which represents crewmembers including grips, cinematographers, editors, costumers, hairstylists and more, informed members Sept. 20 that it would hold a nationwide strike authorization vote (no date was disclosed) amid increasingly strained contract negotiations with producers. Thirteen West Coast locals have been negotiating their next three-year film and television contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in stops and starts for months, and after producers declined to respond to their latest proposal, union leaders, led by IATSE president Matthew Loeb, promised to push for “change that is long overdue in this industry.” The AMPTP countered that it had presented a “comprehensive proposal” that the union walked away from. (IATSE is also currently negotiating its Theatrical and Television Motion Picture Area Standards Agreement covering areas outside L.A. and New York; around 60,000 members are covered under both agreements.)
If IATSE members do vote to authorize a strike, it could impact a number of unionized film and TV projects on the West Coast and nationally at a moment when production in Los Angeles and New York has finally rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. While a strike would be challenging for both management and workers in the short term, IATSE members say they’ve reached this point due to a combination of coinciding factors, including the return to intensive production schedules following pandemic pauses and delays and a new climate where crewmembers are willing to share experiences on social media. (A Motion Pictures Editors Guild member who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely notes, “Because of social media, people are really saying, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one going through this.’ ”)
There’s also a sense among members that IATSE needs to put up a fight now or risk losing more in future talks. “If things go awry and the producers are able to get what they want, then the unlivable conditions that we currently have are going to seem like preschool,” says Amanda Darouie, a second assistant camera belonging to Local 600.
Though the strike threat has only recently surfaced, IATSE members say it’s responding to work conditions that long have been an issue and that the pandemic threw into relief. While many colleagues were out of work in 2020, Local 487 set lighting technician Meagan Arnold saw renewed conversations about the safety risks of a more than 12-hour workday and crewmembers’ desire to spend more time with family on industry Facebook groups. (Crewmembers have for years taken issue with production’s standard long work hours, the dangers of which director and cinematographer Haskell Wexler covered in his 2006 documentary Who Needs Sleep?)
“I really thought when we went back to work this year that things would be different,” Arnold says. “And then, very quickly, I’m working 16-hour days. I worked a 20-hour day a few weeks ago.”
The issue of rest periods “has come to a fulcrum point, particularly in the wake of COVID, when rest was more reliable and 10-hour days were on the table,” adds Darouie. (Top guilds recommended 10-hour days as production restarted early in the pandemic.) IATSE members contend that contractual penalties are not harsh enough to deter productions from infringing on mandated rest periods, which vary by craft. The AMPTP said Sept. 20 that its proposal included “meaningful improvements in rest periods” for those working on first-season TV series and for postproduction workers on series TV, pilots, features and distant locations. During this round of negotiations, IATSE members also are looking to increase wages for crafts that have contractual minimum hourly rates of less than $18 an hour.
Similar to the grassroots #PayUpHollywood movement, which began in 2019 to raise awareness of and improve paltry support-staff wages, members of the union’s Local 871 launched #IALivingWage over the summer, which saw script coordinators, writers assistants, assistant production coordinators and others tell stories on social media of struggles to make ends meet.
Bill Wolkoff — a writer-producer and member of Local 839 (which is set to soon negotiate its own master agreement with the AMPTP) and former writers assistant and script coordinator — notes that he came up on wages that were “not livable.” “If a strike were to happen even over that issue alone, and if it were to disrupt my life, I personally am willing to support [it],” he says, adding, “We need to make access more equitable and inclusive for people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds.” (The AMPTP’s proposal to unions included minimum rate increases from 10 percent to 19 percent for this group of workers, it said Sept. 20.)
Because IATSE leaders have prioritized these and other commonly shared working conditions in their talks with producers this time around, “the solidarity between the locals and the members when discussing these negotiations and the possibilities that might come from them has been incredibly strong,” says Andrew Mueller, a chief lighting technician, cinematographer and operator who belongs to Locals 600 and 728.
While specifics of the talks aren’t disclosed during the negotiation’s media blackout period, IATSE leaders have emphasized in their communications with members that they are focused on gaining more substantial rest periods and penalties for productions that skip meal breaks or ask crews to work into the weekend; implementing higher base pay for crafts with low minimum rates; and procuring increased compensation from streaming projects — some of which, the union says, do not pay a scale wage or offer pension hours because of an outdated agreement to help support the once-uncertain future of “new media” — as well as additional funding for its health and pension plan. (The AMPTP said it proposed raising minimums on particular “new media” productions by an average of 18 percent and offered to “cover the projected deficit of nearly $400 million” of the IATSE pension and health plan.)
Meanwhile, IATSE members’ energetic use of social media during this negotiations period has helped rally members around several of these particular issues. Not long after the debut of #IALivingWage, IA Stories, an Instagram account that in part focuses on the need for more substantial rest periods, gained a following of tens of thousands by posting primarily anonymous stories from workers who say they’re fed up or exhausted with their current work conditions and hours. Mueller says crewmembers now feel far more comfortable than they used to when it comes to speaking up publicly about their discontent: “People aren’t hiding that anymore or pretending like it’s some kind of badge of honor that we have to be caught up in this hustle-culture mentality to justify these conditions that we work under.”
To authorize a strike, a majority of delegates from participating locals (each of which has a particular number of delegate votes) must vote in favor of authorization. For a local to individually support the authorization, at least 75 percent of eligible members who cast a vote must vote “yes.” Voting will take place simultaneously across locals over email and as a result, IATSE members say that recently they’ve been reminded to ensure their contact information is up to date with the union.
The vote will test union members’ confidence in their combined leverage, as well as their willingness to take a risk. “This year, things are different than they were before; I think a lot more of the members will be willing to vote in favor of it,” suggests Editors Guild member and editor Kyle Gilman. “I think it would be in all of the members’ best interest to actually vote for that strike authorization, whether or not they actually want to go on strike. Nobody wants to go on strike.”
Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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