How Unionizing Script Coordinators and Writers Assistants Foreshadowed #PayUpHollywood

Jessica Kivnik
Representatives of IATSE Local 871's writers assistant and script coordinator population attend January 2018's general executive board meeting. From left: Cole Fowler, Leslie Simon, Debbie Ezer, Elysse Applebaum, Jeremy Powell, Jessica Kivnik and Aaron Wiener

In one of the most noteworthy labor moments in Hollywood in the last decade, support staffers fed up with lack of benefits and unlivable wages organized three years before today's assistant movement.

Last January's general executive board meeting of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union representing many of Hollywood's craftspeople and technicians, had all the trappings of an archetypal business conference: a fluorescent-lit hotel ballroom, reports on the union's philanthropic efforts and latest business successes, an address by a politician showing his support (Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who thanked IATSE for its work on behalf of movies and the middle class).

It wasn’t the kind of setting where one would expect anything industry-upending to occur. Nevertheless, a groundbreaking initiation did take place at the Sheraton Grand Los Angeles that winter day: IATSE formally welcomed six representatives of an over 400-person strong group of writers assistants and script coordinators, jobs that are historically poorly paid support-staff roles that can nevertheless lead to major creative positions. As IATSE president Matthew Loeb read them the union's oath, the six representatives held out their right hands to be sworn into membership. "That was a very, very powerful, special moment," one of those sworn in, script coordinator Jeremy Powell (Prodigal Son), said. "I felt the ground shaking and the significance of the moment."

While many factors contributed to 2019's #PayUpHollywood movement advocating for better pay and working conditions for industry support staff — including stagnant pay, a hazing-like "pay your dues" culture, Millennials' and Generation Z's interest in workers' rights and the #MeToo movement, among other factors — one of the most prescient was the unionization of writers assistants and script coordinators under IATSE Local 871 in 2018. Like #PayUpHollywood, Local 871’s organizing drive started online, with workers sharing horror stories; it, too, morphed into a larger, more significant campaign than even its organizers originally projected. In one of the most game-changing labor moments of the past decade in Hollywood, employees in positions that are typically considered early-career gigs won their fight for greater benefits, wages and dignity — until now, however, the story hasn't received much attention.

Before starting their latest organizing drive in 2016, script coordinators and writers assistants had, several times, pitched joining the Writers Guild of America and been rebuffed by the union. "We support the movement to improve working conditions for Hollywood assistants, but their job duties don’t include writing services under the jurisdiction of the WGAW," a representative for WGA West said in a statement. "If an assistant is assigned to perform writing services on their show, the work is covered under the WGA’s MBA [Minimum Basic Agreement] and many writers’ assistants have earned Guild membership as a result of getting freelance script assignments."

But interest in unionizing under another shingle gained steam again in the winter of 2016, when a Yahoo listserv called scriptcoord that included over 1,000 subscribers began discussing health insurance: how few script coordinators got it through their work, and how bad the insurance was that was offered via studios. (Like with many non-unionized employees, health insurance offered through employers for script coordinators and writers assistants was short-term, ending after a project ended production.) A few listserv members soon reached out to Leslie Simon, IATSE Local 871's business representative at the time: IATSE Local 871, which represents script supervisors/continuity coordinators, teleprompter operators, production coordinators and assistant production coordinators, art department coordinators, production accountants and assistant production accountants, payroll accountants, stage managers for sports venues, time out coordinators for sports venues, and graphics and font coordinators for sports venues, they thought, also organized workers who weren’t necessarily going to stay in their positions forever. IATSE offers members the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans, which also covers the Teamsters and is generally well regarded by entertainment employees.

"In terms of the issues, they were overwhelming," Simon, who is now the assistant director of collective bargaining and research at SEIU Local 721, says of her early communications with the group. "There was low pay, long hours, and then numerous other issues that people were facing for folks that were doing pretty important work for an industry that certainly has some money." Simon shared her contact information for listserv participants to post in the group.

Individuals began meeting with Simon for coffee one-on-one; in a few months, their number grew large enough to hold meetings at Local 871's Burbank offices. By June 2017, a meeting at the Local was standing-room-only. As coordinators and assistants met with one another, they picked up both on common issues and glaring discrepancies in their experiences. One organizer learned that when another script coordinator asked for the same raise she had received at a particular studio — $2 more per hour — her peer was told, "No one ever makes that much at this studio." Another organizer had always been able to negotiate their hourly rate all season long on a TV show, whereas one member of the group was required to set a rate before starting a job. After attending her first meeting, script coordinator Elysse Applebaum (Dolly Parton's Heartstrings) remembers meeting a friend outside "and just both of us being really charged up and being like, 'Oh, my gosh, this could really happen. We could really do this.'"

The primary challenge for these early adopters was finding all of the script coordinators and writers assistants within Local 871's jurisdiction, given that industry projects typically only hire one of each job classification. “We were islands,” explains script coordinator Debbie Ezer (The Good Doctor). In order for Local 871 to go before the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the major studios' negotiating arm, and ask to enter negotiations, the union had to ensure a critical mass of the population signed cards authorizing IATSE to engage in collective bargaining on their behalf. As a result, Simon and other organizers began compiling a spreadsheet of all applicable writers assistants and script coordinators. "I tracked a lot of people down … a lot of Facebook stalking, a lot of Googling, a lot of cold emails and a lot of times people wouldn't answer them," Applebaum recalls.  

Once they got in contact, organizers offered information on unionizing and determined whether individuals would sign. Given the relative powerlessness of this support-staff population, "there was a lot of fear and concern about this concept of becoming unionized and all the pitfalls that have come in the history of unionization," Powell notes. Meetings and unionizing conversations took place outside of work hours and inconspicuously to avoid employer attention.

When the group felt it had enough cards signed to approach the AMPTP, Simon, IATSE director of motion picture and TV production Mike Miller and assistant director of motion picture and television production Vanessa Holtgrewe met with the industry group. "Their [the AMPTP's] first reaction was 'These are just assistants — why would we ever unionize them?' They were flat-out like almost laughed out of the room at the very beginning," says script coordinator Jessica Kivnik (Bosch), who heard about the meeting secondhand.

"I wouldn't say they laughed," Simon says. "I think that the industry has been used to having entry-level points within the industry where people seem to accept that are not going to be unionized and therefore are lower pay and unbenefited."

A representative for the AMPTP, Jarryd Gonzales, said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, "The AMPTP has tremendous respect for all voices in the entertainment industry. We have a long-standing cooperative relationship with the entertainment guilds, unions and their members and we appreciate and value the many contributions they make to our industry."

Nevertheless, after a card count, the AMPTP found Local 871 had won over a majority of writers assistants and script coordinators; the industry group did not ask for an additional election, which is sometimes requested. Next came negotiations for a contract for all script coordinators and writers assistants at the major studios, which were scheduled for two dates in November 2017. After one all-day negotiation, Simon, Miller and Holtgrewe walked away from the bargaining table when they felt they weren’t getting the studios to compromise. "So we had the what I called the 'come to Jesus' conference call the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 2017," Ezer says: Simon chatted with workers, all of whom weren’t at the negotiations, to determine what they were willing to give up in order to land a first contract.

The compromises they decided on were numerous: They allowed the studios to delay pension contributions by one year and contribute to health plans only for shows that started or were ongoing after March 1, 2018; the workers traded their typical 60 hours of work a week for an eight-hour-a-day guarantee, which would only given them 40 hours of pay per week if strictly implemented; most of all, the group compromised on the minimum rates on their contract, which everyone THR spoke with called low — currently, writers rooms assistants’ minimum is $14.57 per hour and script coordinators’ is $16.63 an hour.

In December, Simon broke the news of the final verdict: "Congratulations! You're [sic] hard work has paid off," he emailed. "FANTASTIC AND WONDERFULL!!!" script coordinator and organizer Marc Gaffen (New Amsterdam) shot back in response. The contract kicked in on Feb. 3, 2018.

Nearly two years later, organizers who spoke for this story consider gaining the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans as a result of unionization a major win for them and their peers, in addition to a four-hour minimum work call for a sixth or seventh day of work in a week (in other words, if an employee is required to do some work on a weekend, they must be paid for at least four hours of work) and landing their first contract. Another success: This past summer, Local 871 additionally won unionization for writers assistants and script coordinators on cable networks Starz, HBO and Showtime. The group still continues to grapple with some employers' interpretations of the contract, however: Organizers reported instances of employers offering only the minimum hourly rate to members instead of considering it a “floor” rate, and instituting 40-hour workweeks instead of the usual 60-hour weeks. Most employers, sources said, still offer script coordinators and writers assistants 60-hour weeks.

While their efforts clearly foreshadowed #PayUpHollywood, organizers involved in Local 871’s drive also pay tribute to other social movements for their rise. "The world has very much shifted since Time's Up and I think that was something that opened the door for us," Powell says. "I really think because of the Trump election and how crazy things are politically, people started to get more politically active and started thinking, ‘Wait a second — I should have certain rights,’" Gaffen adds.

#PayUpHollywood itself is bolstering Local 871’s current efforts, which are far from over: One of the organization’s goals moving forward, in addition to raising minimum hourly rates and weekly hours for its support-staff population when its contract is renewed in 2021, is scoping out the viability of unionizing showrunners' assistants. (Production assistants, who are notoriously poorly paid and work long hours, aren't unionized and don't yet have a major movement underfoot.) Representatives from 871 were present at a recent #PayUpHollywood town hall to determine whether some of the complaints fell under the union's purview. “We've already seen how much power you can get from opening your mouth and sharing your experiences and becoming a unit as opposed to an individual," Kivnik says.

For the core organizers of the movement — several of whom have been promoted, have landed promising writing work or have plans to move on from their current positions — their efforts were intended to help future employees more than themselves. The contract was "not for us currently in the jobs, because a lot of us in the negotiating committee were pretty much the old pros ready to leave the business anyway or ready to move on," Gaffen says, "but for the future people, knowing they have a safety net, knowing that they don't have to beg and prod to get little things … knowing that they've got some protection with them as they make their way through this crazy business."