IATSE union defies Hollywood bosses with near-unanimous strike vote

On October 4, 60,000 film and television workers of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees voted overwhelmingly to authorize a nationwide strike for a living wage, reasonable rest and sustainable benefits. While this does not mean a strike is inevitable, it gives the union and its leadership major leverage in its battle with the studios for a fair contract. 

Results show that 90 percent of eligible union voters cast ballots, with more than 98 percent of them (52,706 workers) in support of the strike authorization. This is the first time in the union’s 128-year history that members have authorized a nationwide strike. Upon hearing this news, union members immediately took to social media with the hashtag #iasolidarity expressing their pride and elation over the show of force.  

Sara Itkis, grip and local 481 member, said: “We know [the studios] can afford to meet our demands and make jobs in our industry more sustainable and safe. And yet they refuse to even acknowledge the core issues we are bringing to them in our negotiations?! That’s why we almost unanimously voted yes to authorize a strike. We’re fed up and we’re ready to fight to get what we need: reasonable rest, safe hours, living wages, and equal pay for ‘new media’ streaming projects, which are not so new anymore.”   

For several weeks, IATSE members have been mobilizing support for the vote through rallies, petitions, banner drops, car painting drive-thrus and even a sky banner that flew over the studio lots on the first day of voting. The massive voter turnout could not have been achieved without the membership who largely drove the union’s militant outreach efforts. The momentum they built alongside leadership not only garnered public support from celebrities and the other Hollywood guilds but also an outpouring of union solidarity from UFW, AFT, NNU, RDWSU, ILWU, and UNITE HERE.  It was this overwhelming support across different industries that eventually pressured 120 members of Congress to sign a letter calling for improved wages and working conditions for entertainment workers. 

Only hours after the results were announced, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, who represent a swath of the wealthiest media conglomerates in the world, agreed to return to the bargaining table the following day.

The film and television industry, collectively known as “Hollywood,” has enjoyed myths about glitz and glamor; socialites and artists in Los Angeles living lavish lifestyles of fortune and fame. The reality is that Hollywood is propped up by an entire class of freelance employees who work around the clock.

Every minute of a major film represents thousands of hours of labor. This layer of workers — the “film crew” — has had to produce content through brutally long shifts, lack of meal breaks, spontaneous schedule changes, mass manipulation and chronic harassment.    

Far from 8-hour workdays and 40-hour weeks, the film industry standard shift for a day of work is expected to be longer than 12 hours. In fact, most workers receive a “call” time and a location the day prior to their shift but without an “out-time” listed for each work day. This culture of “keep filming until the employer is happy,” is a major source of workers’ grievances.

Amelia Brooke, art director and IATSE local 800 member, told Liberation News, “We exhaust ourselves for 12, 14, 16, even more hours a day, and it leaves no time for us to focus on other things that matter in our community, within our families. If we’ve got hobbies or other interests we’re not allowed to pursue them, and it’s time that we’re allowed to be fuller people outside of making entertainment for others. Period.” 

Over the last few decades, many workers in the industry have died from exhaustion or falling asleep driving home after consistently long shifts. Many workers have fallen into depression, lost their families, been unable to see to their children growing up or postponed crucial medical appointments at the last minute because the producers decided to alter shooting schedules or egregiously extend a workday.

“From employees being forced to work during labor to not being allowed to put in the actual hours we work because production companies don’t want to pay us, the film industry is in desperate need of change. We need to remind these production companies that us workers are the reason these movies get made!” an anonymous film worker based in Boston told Liberation News.

Negotiations between AMPTP and IATSE take place every three years. As expected, AMPTP’s proposals reflect its drive to increase profit margins. Meanwhile, IATSE strives to bargain for a contract that betters the quality of life for workers. IATSE members are demanding longer turnaround times, higher base wages, and an extension to their pensions and benefits to reflect the industry’s latest changes: internet streaming video services. 

Not even a decade ago, the largest players in the film industry were represented by the major Hollywood studios which showcased their products at movie theaters across the country. Over the last few years, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, the film industry has seen an enormous shift to at-home on-demand viewing.  This has spurred a runaway train of capitalists who have been making billions of dollars off the backs of Hollywood workers by exploiting an outdated “new media’ contract loophole meant to subsidize streaming.  

Studios like Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and Apple have become the new chief media-makers, sweeping the top honors at award shows and raking in all the box office revenue. These streaming giants have been earning record profits for years and pay next to no taxes. Meanwhile, little has changed in the quality of life for film industry workers.

As of the time of this writing, negotiations have resumed with a new offer on the table from the AMPTP. However, one union official described the offer as being not much different than before the vote, calling it a “big nothingburger.” The studios, unwilling to concede, are clearly terrified by this historic vote and the strength and unity of IATSE members. In retaliation, productions are reportedly pushing crews to work extended hours now in order to complete projects before a strike.

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