Opposition to IATSE Deal Emerges

Citing retirement and health plan concessions, and what they consider low wage increases, opponents urge a No vote on the recent tentative deal – but it’s unknown how widespread that sentiment is.

Public opposition is emerging to the tentative deal reached between IATSE and the AMPTP two weeks ago – which was unanimously endorsed by the union’s negotiating committee – but it’s impossible to gauge how widespread that position is. The unanimous endorsement, coupled with the union’s local by local, winner take all voting system, is likely to make defeating the deal an uphill slog for opponents.

In an email to The Hollywood Reporter, opponents of the deal asserted that “many within the IA Membership . . . are VERY unhappy with the Tentative Agreement.” However, in response to a question from THR, the email’s author acknowledged that “as to an actual number, we don't have that data.”

Another email, citing comments on an opposition Facebook group, described the anti-deal constituency as “an overwhelming majority.” A third email referred to “unbridled anger.” Comments on the Facebook group, which has over 3,200 members, reflect both opposition and support for the deal.

The three-year deal, which amends IATSE’s Basic Agreement, affects about 15 primarily West Coast locals and, according to opponents, about 35,000 members.

IATSE did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, in a statement issued on April 13 when the deal was announced, union president Matt Loeb said, “Our goals going into these negotiations have been met.” said. He added that the negotiations “resulted in a fair deal that will provide employment stability, protect our health and pension plans and provide for wage increases in a fragile economy.”

The deal, reached in advance of the July 31 expiration of the current contract, includes 2% annual wage increases and preservation of health benefits. In addition, the studios agreed to a $1 per hour increase in the health plan contribution rate, a 20% increase over the current rate of $5 per hour. Those contributions, which employers pay in addition to wages, are part of the way the pension and health plans are funded.

But the deal came at a cost: for the first time, the IATSE-affiliated Motion Picture Industry Health Plan will charge premiums for members with dependents: $25/mo. for one dependent and $50/mo. for members with two or more dependents. There’s still no premium required for members without dependents.

Also, some funding ($0.305/hr., or 30.5 cents) that employers contribute to one of the retirement plans – the Individual Account Plan – will be reallocated to the health plan. The effect of this on the IAP could not immediately be determined.

On their website, opponents criticized the wage increases as not keeping pace with inflation and the union’s concessions regarding premiums and reallocation of IAP funding are among factors that “completely overshadow . . . what we didn’t get, what we gave away, or what we still continue to give away.” Ironically, the 2% annual increases reflect the figure that the IA set in its 2009 negotiations, which the studios successfully used as a pattern for subsequent negotiations with the above the line unions.

Complicating the opposition goal of defeating the deal are two factors. One is the fact that members of unions generally approve deals recommended by the leadership, particularly if the recommendation is unanimous.

The other is IATSE’s voting system, which opponents describe as analogous to the Electoral College. According to their web page, each local is allocated one electoral vote per hundred members. If a majority – even if only  a slim majority – of voters in the local vote Yes or vote No, all of the local’s electoral votes are cast accordingly. That means that a result that appears overwhelming may not have been, and that possible differing turnout among locals could affect the result.

A website focusing on crew-related issues, Below the Line, quoted an unnamed union leader as saying “I haven’t heard of any organized opposition to the terms of the contract.” The article’s author, Jack Egan, contends that ratification of the deal “seems all but a certainty, and likely by an overwhelming margin.” He’s been writing for the publication, including on union issues, since at least 2003.

The reason that the union focused on the health plan is that the pension and health plans, which are linked, were facing a funding shortfall that Loeb estimated at “over $400 million.” Another source, speaking on background, gave THR a $350 million forecast over the next three years. Both figures were an improvement from the plan’s $500 million estimate six months ago but were still substantial.

Meanwhile, additional factors cited by opponents on their website include an expansion of the Los Angeles “studio zone” – within which certain union terms are lower – without an increase in mileage reimbursements “to properly reflect rising fuel prices and car depreciation.” The zone remains a 30-mile circle centered at the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega Blvds., but several outlying areas have been added, matching the most recent SAG/AFTRA deal, negotiated in fall 2010.

The website also includes a point by point response to an FAQ document recently released by the union.

Even with the new premiums, the MPI Health Plan is unusually robust: for instance, under the Blue Shield option, there are no deductibles; low co-pays ($5/visit in some cases); 100% coverage of some doctor visits; 90% coverage of hospital visits; and a $1,000/person annual maximum for out of pocket costs. None of the above the line union or guild plans is this robust; nor are non-union health plans generally anywhere near this vigorous. The plan trustees can change these details at any time.

The legal document embodying the deal – the Memorandum of Agreement is expected to be released in the future, although the date hasn’t been announced. At that time, the deal will be sent to members for ratification. The timetable for that is not known.

Negotiations with the Teamsters union, and unions representing plumbers, plasterers, electricians and laborers, are incomplete, and will resume at a later date yet to be determined. Talks between the studios and IATSE’s Local 839 – the Animation Guild – have broken down.

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Email: jhandel@att.net

Twitter: @jhandel

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