Hollywood crews vote to authorize a strike for better pay and working conditions

Oct 4, 2021
Originally published on November 5, 2021 6:45 am

Hollywood film and TV productions could soon shut down if contract negotiations aren't resolved. Production staff in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, voted to authorize a strike Monday over disputes with studio producers about their schedules, pay and work conditions. The threat of an actual strike could be leverage during any future negotiations, which could happen this week as the two sides sit down again for talks.

Members from 13 local unions on the West Coast and 23 other locals around the country — totaling 60,000 workers — voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if needed. That could impact everyone from cinematographers and editors to makeup artists and the food workers who feed the casts and crews. Many of them have complained of having workdays longer than 12 hours with few breaks, rates below $18 an hour and miserable working conditions. Some are asking for more compensation for productions that are streamed online and not released theatrically. Since May, their national union has been trying to hammer out new basic agreements with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

"I hope that the studios will see and understand the resolve of our members," IATSE international president Matthew Loeb said in today's announcement. "The ball is in their court. If they want to avoid a strike, they will return to the bargaining table and make us a reasonable offer."

He said the issue is about the quality of life as well as the health and safety of those who work in the film and television industry. "Our people have basic human needs like time for meal breaks, adequate sleep, and a weekend. For those at the bottom of the pay scale, they deserve nothing less than a living wage."

"No one wants to go on strike. That would be a last resort," said Rebecca Rhine, national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600, which represents about 9,000 camera staff and publicists. She said it is "remarkable" that over 98% of the IATSE members who voted chose to authorize a strike if necessary. (Nearly 90% of eligible members cast ballots.) "It's a clear mandate and a message to employers," she said. "If we have to go on strike, it would be devastating. We hope we don't have to. But if it's necessary, they'll do it."

Workers have been sharing their stories on social media, where some complain that their call times are grueling, leaving them with little time to see their families, sleep deprivation and more.

Ben Gottlieb, a lighting technician who moderates an Instagram account featuring experiences from production staff, says he's heard from many workers. "A lot of people are told they have to choose between the industry and a family. It's brutal," he says. "People are frustrated that it's a prolific, iconic American industry that sort of thrives on these almost archaic work practices."

Production crews have gotten support from legislators and celebrities including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, LeVar Burton, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington, and Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter.

In a statement, AMPTP said the producers organization "remains committed to reaching an agreement that will keep the industry working. We deeply value our IATSE crew members and are committed to working with them to avoid shutting down the industry at such a pivotal time, particularly since the industry is still recovering from the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic."

In an earlier statement, the AMPTP wrote it had listened to IATSE's demands and offered a package including "substantial improvements in rest periods, increases in wages and benefits, increases in minimum rates for specific job categories" and more.

After IATSE members voted to authorize a strike, the AMPTP wrote that a deal "can be made at the bargaining table, but it will require both parties working together in good faith with a willingness to compromise and to explore new solutions to resolve the open issues."

If IATSE does call a strike, it would be the first in the union's 128-year history.

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The pandemic prompted many people to ask if they really want to return to the same work routine that lockdowns disrupted. And that is the backdrop of a threatened strike among people who work in film and TV production. Union members from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, voted to authorize a strike if necessary. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The union IATSE represents 60,000 film and TV production workers, everyone from cinematographers and editors to makeup artists to the workers who feed the casts and crews. Nearly all of them - 98% - voted to authorize a strike if the producers don't agree to give them better work schedules, pay and work conditions. For months, the union has been trying to hammer out an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or the AMPTP. The threat of an actual strike could be leverage when the two sides sit down again for talks as soon as today.

REBECCA RHINE: If we have to go on strike, it will be devastating to everybody. But what our members are telling us is if that's what's necessary, that's what they'll do.

DEL BARCO: Rebecca Rhine is the national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild, which represents 9,000 camera crew workers and publicists, most of them in Hollywood. Rhine says IATSE's strike threat is a clear mandate.

RHINE: It's a message to the employers that they need to listen to what the people who work for them are saying they need to have a healthy and a sane workplace.

DEL BARCO: Rhine says workers often complain of sleep deprivation from the long, grueling production hours they endure with few breaks. Some say they can't live on wages paying less than $18 an hour. Others want increased compensation for working on productions that appear on streaming services. They're currently paid less under an agreement signed in 2009, when streaming was still new.

BEN GOTTLIEB: A lot of people are told that they have to choose between the industry and having a family. It's brutal.

DEL BARCO: Ben Gottlieb is a lighting technician who helps run an Instagram account for film and TV production workers to share their experiences.

GOTTLIEB: People are frustrated that it's an iconic, prolific American industry that sort of thrives on these, like, almost archaic work practices.

DEL BARCO: Now the union's calls for change are getting support from legislators and celebrities, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mindy Kaling and Kerry Washington. For its part, the producers alliance says it wants to reach an agreement to keep the industry working. Jarryd Gonzales, a former California Republican strategist, is the spokesman for the AMPTP. He reads from the group's latest statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARRYD GONZALES: We deeply value our IATSE crew members and are committed to working with them to avoid shutting down the industry at such a pivotal time, particularly since the industry is still recovering from the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

DEL BARCO: Rebecca Rhine from Local 600 says for a few months during the pandemic, producers offered paid sick leave, shortened production days and gave workers breaks. But she says with production back to pre-pandemic levels, things have gone backwards.

RHINE: If you would say to me that we would be fighting for breaks and weekends in the year 2021, I wouldn't believe it. But that's really where we are. What the pandemic really taught people was that the industry could, if they chose to, change the way they do business and put people's health and safety first.

DEL BARCO: If the Hollywood crews do strike, it would be for the first time in the union's 128-year history.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "DELPHINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.