OK, entertainment junkies, be prepared to go into withdrawal.
Unionized workers in charge of rigging lights, doing hair, making sets and just about everything else non-acting related voted Monday to authorize a strike. At issue are better working conditions, say leaders of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
The IATSE could use the authorization to get the producers’ union back to the negotiating table. IATSE leaders announced that nearly 90% of members voted, and of those, 98% approved of a strike.
More talks could be in the works. “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,” the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a statement provided to USA TODAY after the strike authorization.
Members of the crew union have been vocal on social media about the need for producers to pay more attention to the lives of those working behind the scenes.
“How am I supposed to have a family while working 12+ hours a day (even longer when you add commuting)?” wrote would-be striker Kirsten Thorson on Instagram. “I love my job in the film industry but the industry doesn’t love me back.”
There are hints that some showrunners and directors are already heeding the complaints of crews.
On the Instagram account IATSE Stories, where members can post comments anonymously, one person wrote that “the director on the show I’m on follows this page and after reading how the crew gets treated, has made it a POINT to wrap before we hit 10hrs everyday, not even 12.”
Top actors came out in support of the strike in past weeks, knowing that their jobs wouldn’t exist without the armies behind them. And most are themselves part of their own union, the Screen Actors Guild.
“I just spent 9 months working with an incredibly hard working crew of film makers through very challenging conditions,” Ben Stiller wrote on Twitter. “Totally support them in fighting for better conditions.”
But supporting Hollywood crews does not mean all productions would stop. First off, there are a number of union contracts that are still in effect for another year, such as the one covering pay services such as HBO.
The contract that expired several months ago and led to this negotiation stalemate is focused in part on streaming services such as Netflix, who were issued more generous terms because the future of such services wasn’t known back when the ink dried on IATSE’s New Media deal in 2009.
And second, a shutdown could still be avoided, given what’s at stake for producers and workers alike, says Thomas Lenz, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law and partner at Pasadena-based Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.
“A ‘yes’ vote from union members puts them in a good bargaining position, something they can deploy if they need to,” says Lenz. “Producers don’t really want a disruption in the product they put out, and workers don’t want to go long without pay. They could get back to the bargaining table.”
We break down the plot:
Q: Which workers are ready to walk?
A: For months, the production workers union has been trying to negotiate a new three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for its 150,000 workers. These include cinematographers, costumers, script supervisors and grips – essentially, the critical folks who allow the stars to shine. The union has never before gone on strike. If it does this time, an estimated 60,000 of those members currently on jobs are expected to stop working.
The parties have been talking for a while. The current contract was set to expire July 31, but as talks dragged on it was extended to Sept 10. Negotiations for a new three-year deal continued after that, eventually leading to this tense moment.
Lenz says the pandemic’s impact on work/life balance is also a factor. “If you’re working 10- and 12-hour days routinely, the pandemic may now have caused you to reassess your whole lifestyle and decide if you want to work the same way as you did in the past,” he says.
Q: What does the union want?
A: IATSE wants better working conditions and salaries, while AMPTP feels the demands are too financially onerous for an industry that’s still reeling from the pandemic. A letter written by IATSE president Matthew Loeb says the aim is “more humane working conditions across the industry, including reasonable rest during and between workdays and on the weekend, equitable pay on streaming productions, and a livable wage floor.” Under the current IATSE New Media deal, for example, streaming services with fewer than 20 million subscribers pay lower wages. Also on the table: making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday for union workers.
“Employers, such as the producers guild here, go into things looking at everything as a cost item,” says Lenz. “But the times are a bit different now. Look at all the social justice protests over the past year and something like giving people MLK Day off makes sense. Most employers are waking up to that.”
Q: Which productions will suffer?
A: Movies, network TV shows and Netflix productions would halt as they fall under the now-expired contract. That means any television series or reality show currently in production might be delivering repeat episodes to fans later this year or early next year.
But a number of popular premium-cable productions – and so-called low-budget theatrical fare – wouldn’t be stalled because that union contract is good until the end of 2022. Commercials also are safe. IATSE’s agreement with the Association of Independent Commercial Producers runs through Sept. 30, 2022.
“If you are working on commercials or for HBO, Showtime, Starz, Cinemax, BET or another company that has a contract still in effect – you must keep working,” IATSE informed members working on productions for those companies. “You will not be a scab!”
Q: What do Hollywood stars think?
A: Would-be strikers have support on social media. Seth Rogen tweeted, “Our films and movies literally would not exist without our crews, and our crews deserve better.” “Grace and Frankie” co-stars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda shared a photo of themselves on Instagram with raised fists while wearing union T-shirts. Bradley Whitford tweeted that negotiators for AMPTP “refuse to even discuss guaranteed meal breaks or 10 hour turnarounds. That’s nuts. If you make a living in front of a camera, now is the time to speak for the people who make it possible.”
Q: Is this a new dispute?
A: Consider it another episode in a long-running series. In 1945, 10,500 members of the Confederation of Studio Unions went on strike, shutting down production on the David O. Selznick epic “Duel in the Sun,” starring Gregory Peck. Months went by without a resolution, culminating in riots in front of Warner Bros. studios. More recently, the Writers Guild of America struck in late 2007 for a larger percentage of show profits. The 14-week standoff halted production of TV and movies. After its resolution, economists estimated that the strike cost the Los Angeles economy more than $1 billion.
Q: What happens now?
A: Now that IATSE can call a strike and shut down many productions, negotiations are likely to resume with renewed intensity. There is an economic incentive to work out a deal. A recent report from the Motion Picture Association of America, using Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2016, indicated that the film and TV industry produces more than 2 million high-paying jobs that in turn funnel nearly $50 billion annually to businesses wherever content is being created.