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On Oct. 16, after months of bargaining between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and studios, it seemed that Hollywood had managed to avoid its largest coordinated labor action since World War II when studios and the union representing more than 150,000 workers reached a tentative deal for a new contract.
But over the next five days, just as IATSE leadership, led by president Matthew Loeb, was beginning to make its pitch to members to support the deal, a weary crew on an independent movie in New Mexico was falling apart amid long hours and stressful working conditions. By the end of the week, six members of the union camera crew had walked off the set Oct. 21 in frustration and — in a horrific incident authorities are still investigating — Alec Baldwin had fatally shot their cinematographer, Local 600 member Halyna Hutchins, during rehearsal for a gunfight scene.
Now some IATSE members are saying the Rust shooting is just the most dramatic example of the dangerous working conditions they’ve been agitating to change — and their new contract doesn’t go far enough to protect them. “I feel a gut feeling to vote no,” says David Feldman, a member of IATSE Local 700 (Motion Picture Editors Guild). “The leadership has been stressing a yes vote, and I’m not sure that a yes vote under these circumstances is the right response. The game has changed with this accident, and it can no longer be business as usual.”
IATSE has not yet announced a date for a vote on the three-year agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which includes yearly wage increases of 3 percent, increased contributions to health and pension plans and a required 10-hour turnaround time between shifts.
But over the past two weeks, union leaders have been holding virtual town halls to discuss the deal points with members of the 13 West Coast locals, and some of the meetings have been strained, members say. “Our leadership is frustrated that there’s not more celebration of the achievements of this current agreement,” says one member of Local 600 (International Cinematographers Guild). “And then right on the heels of that, a member of our union dies in an accident on set, and a lot of people were like, ‘They just don’t care about us. The producers don’t care.’ There were a lot of feelings that popped up very quickly, pushing into the worst fears of our members.”
Even before the Rust shooting, a faction of the membership was expressing skepticism about the new contract. “It’s a joke that they think a 10-hour turnaround is a win …” says another Local 600 member. “I don’t believe legally allowing a 14-hour day is a win. The biggest concern for on-set safety is the working hours.”
On Oct. 28, a week after the tragedy and in the midst of these tense meetings, the leaders of the IATSE West Coast locals issued a statement recommending members vote yes on ratifying the agreement. “To the thousands of members who are supporting this agreement, we thank you for your vote of confidence,” the statement said. “To those of you opposed — we hear you, we see you, and we recognize we collectively still have work to do to change the culture of our industry. We ask you to stand with us as we move forward.”
Though the Rust accident has been virtually the only topic of discussion on sets during the past week and a half, the new IATSE deal is the product of nearly a year of conversations, many of which began just as crews were returning to work after economically painful stoppages caused by the pandemic.
“We don’t have a normal job. I think that’s what the conversation is about now. And I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t like what IATSE bargained for and I want to vote against it,’ ” observes American Society of Cinematographers president Stephen Lighthill of what he’s hearing among his community. Lighthill, also head of the cinematography department at the AFI Conservatory — which Hutchins attended — adds that a new conversation is needed that addresses working hours and other safety-related issues.
Adds the Local 600 member who wants more than 10-hour turnarounds: “The existing protocols for most on-set safety things, they’re good, they’re solid. The problem is they’re not followed because a production is trying to squeeze as much out of each individual day as they can.”
Historically, tragedies like the one that occurred on the set of Rust have helped to spur labor activity, like the 1911 Triangle Factory Fire in Greenwich Village that killed 146 people and galvanized garment workers. More recently, there was a walkout at an Amazon factory in March 2020 after multiple employees tested positive for COVID-19.
Hutchins’ death comes as workers in many industries are pushing back at employers and there is more public approval of unions in the U.S. than at any time since 1965, according to a Gallup poll. In October, support for the IATSE strike authorization was more than 98 percent should negotiators not be able to strike a deal with the studios, with more than 90 percent of eligible union members casting ballots. Within Hollywood’s below-the-line community, the grudging acceptance of the long hours that come with production work was clearly waning.
“What happened in New Mexico doesn’t have an exact link to the contract negotiations, but it has an emotional one for all of us,” says John Roney, a camera assistant in Local 600. “We have a focus now renewed by the past two years, by the style of work that’s evolved out of the pandemic and the conditions that are involved in that. We are now reflecting on what we’re willing to do, what conditions we’re willing to endure as this unimaginable tragedy happens. The timing is kind of wild.”
Katie Kilkenny and Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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