Hollywood workers fight back as studios prioritize corporate profit

The author is a member of IATSE Local 871.

Contract negotiations remain tense between International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers as studios make it clear they would rather prioritize profit over the safety and well being of workers.  After several months with no movement, Matthew D. Loeb, the union’s international President, stated talks are “at a critical juncture” since the Basic Agreement expired on September 10. His bottom line: “If the mega-corporations that make up the AMPTP remain unwilling to address our core priorities and treat workers with human dignity, it is going to take the combined solidarity of all of us to change their minds.”  

For the first time ever, IATSE’s 13 Hollywood locals, which represent approximately 52,000 workers, appear to be headed towards a strike authorization vote. While authorizing a strike does not mean a strike is inevitable, it is an important bargaining chip for the workers to put pressure on the studios to get their demands. While a “no” vote would effectively strip the union of any leverage at the bargaining table and leave them in a weaker position for negotiations to come. If a strike authorization were to pass and the union sees no other option, this would be the first industry-wide strike against the studios in IATSE’s 128-year old history.  

Furthermore, an IATSE strike could have broader implications nationwide. Teamsters Local 399 as well as 8,000 crew members covered under the “Area Standards” agreement (those working in the US but outside of Los Angeles and New York) have contracts that expire this month. Since IATSE, Teamsters Local 399, and Area Standards all share the same pension and health plans it’s possible that an IATSE strike could trigger a larger nationwide strike.

IATSE, which represents cinematographers, grips, script supervisors, costume designers, set dressers, and makeup artists to name a few, have taken a united front in contrast to the usual separate negotiations of previous years. Together they are holding the line on their demands: a living wage, reasonable rest periods, safer working conditions, and sustainable benefits, which were underfunded even before the pandemic. These are issues that have lingered over the various negotiation cycles with Hollywood workers getting the short end of the stick as studios continue to capitalize on “new media” and chip away at the union’s pension plan. 

However, this year is different. At the start of the pandemic, tens of thousands of Hollywood workers found themselves unemployed with no end in sight. While small stretches of unemployment are not unusual for freelance entertainment workers, IATSE alone reported that 120,000 of its 150,000 members were out of work during the industry shutdown. This was the first time many were not only income insecure but also forced to take a break from production’s grueling 12 to 14 hour work days. “The pandemic changed a lot for people and contributed to bringing us to this breaking point.” said Marisa Shipley, vice president of Local 871 and an art department coordinator. She continues, “To see how much money producers immediately threw at COVID protocols while members continue to work in these conditions is frustrating for a lot of us. We need systemic change in the contract.”  

Due to the COVID-19 Return to Work Agreement, early on during the pandemic producers were forced to consider safety protocols and reduce hours. However, with theater closures, release delays, and production freezes studios have been pushing workers to the brink ever since in order to catch up on profits lost during the pandemic. COVID-19 exacerbated working conditions in the film industry like never before, clarifying the important role unions and collective bargaining play for their members. Hollywood’s unions not only drove the design of COVID safety protocols that helped ensure a safer workplace during filming, but they also launched relief programs to combat the food insecurity and financial hardships of their members. Meanwhile multi billion-dollar corporations like Disney saw their streaming platform flourish, planning to spend over $30 Billion in new streaming content this year while continuing to suppress workers’ wages. 

The movement for organized labor and social justice have played a major role in building class consciousness among Hollywood workers and bolstering the union’s current historic fight. Going into negotiations this year the unions formed a more powerful united block launching their “We Stand Together” campaign. Solidarity among the 13 IATSE locals is at an all-time high as they work to prioritize the lowest paid workers in the industry with their campaign for a living wage. In 2019, it was the #PayUpHollywood movement that advocated for better pay and working conditions for the industry’s support staff and successfully unionized writer’s assistant and script coordinators. The #MeToo movement also played an instrumental role in shaping the consciousness of workers in this industry, proving that continued struggle can take down even the most powerful producers in Hollywood.      

While many often imagine Hollywood as a glamorous industry where dreams are made, the fact is that crews on and off set often work dangerously long hours without breaks. In 1997, assistant camera operator Brent Hershman was killed while driving home after working a 19-hour day. His death sparked a short-lived movement from coworkers who drafted a petition mandating a 14-hour workday on the set. Although that campaign was almost 25 years ago, the problem of unsafely long hours is still a major concern of the unions throughout the industry. Fourteen of Hollywood’s top cinematographers recently signed a letter urging the AMPTP to finally address “the hazard of unsafe working hours.” Unfortunately stories like Hershman’s are all too common in an industry rife with safety problems that have only gotten worse with the high demands of new media and streaming services.

In the midst of negotiations, thousands of Hollywood workers have taken to social media to tell their stories of exploitation on an Instagram account called “IATSE Stories.” Workers of all backgrounds and experiences use the platform to describe the brutal working conditions of a film set. Many workers recall working 15 to 16 hour days without having time to take lunch and nearly getting into fatal car accidents on their way home. An anonymous Production Assistant recalls, “I worked 24hrs once as a PA and nearly fell asleep on the freeway coming home in rush hour. The overtime was great because I was poor, but I shouldn’t have to risk my life for a decent wage.”

Some make poverty wages needing overtime or constant work year round without a day off in order to afford their rent or mortgage. The stress is so unbearable that film crews often experience higher rates of depression, heart attacks, and even miscarriages while on the job. “I’ve worked myself into a deep depression repeatedly. At one point doing 25 months straight of 70 hour weeks (with commutes and weeks off for Christmas). I’ve seen friends and colleagues pushed over the edge in every respect, from divorce to addiction to mental illness and suicide,” says Andy Kennedy-Derkay, second camera assistant and Local 600 member. Despite these horrific stories, workers are using this platform as a soundboard for union organizing in their shows and building solidarity.

While the militancy epitomized by Hollywood labor in the 1950s remains a thing of the past, the resurgence of labor unrest and unity among Hollywood workers in this moment has potential to sustain momentum and be a major win for workers rights. As the battle for a fair contract continues, it is the below-the-line crew members who must fight and build power to determine their own fate. If film industry workers can defeat the AMPTP in these negotiations and continue to build power with the other industry unions as well as non-union workers, it will be a turnpointing point for Hollywood labor and show that the working class can win against the most powerful corporations through collective struggle. 

Related Articles

Back to top button