This story originally appeared in Jacobin on Oct. 18, 2021.
It is shared here with permission.
On Saturday night, Deadline reported that a tentative agreement had been reached between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents “below the line” workers in the film and television industry such as cinematographers, grips, hair stylists, costumers, and editors, and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which includes Warner Bros., Netflix, Amazon, Disney, and many other studios.
The three-year contract, known as the Basic Agreement, covers the union’s 13 Hollywood locals. Negotiations have been ongoing for months, and the announcement came just before the Sunday night deadline set by the union, at which point 60,000 IATSE members across the country would have begun a strike, shutting down film and television production nationwide. That strike, which was authorized by a vote of 99% in favor, with 90% of eligible members casting ballots, would have been the largest such private-sector action since the 73,000-person United Auto Workers (UAW) strike at General Motors.
In announcing the tentative agreement, IATSE president Matthew Loeb called it “a Hollywood ending.” “We went toe to toe with some of the richest and most powerful entertainment and tech companies in the world, and we have now reached an agreement with the AMPTP that meets our members’ needs,” he added.
As an aside, it is worth noting that there is another expired contract, the Area Standards Agreement (ASA), which covers thousands of members who were part of that 60,000-person strike vote. Custom is for the ASA to follow what is negotiated in the Basic, but the fact remains that they voted to strike if they didn’t have an agreement by Sunday night, and that deadline has come and gone without them having one.
After the tentative agreement was announced on Saturday, IATSE members received an email with abbreviated highlights. Those include: 3% raises per year, expansion of sick leave benefit, turnaround times—the guaranteed rest period from when one leaves set to one can be required to return—of 10 hours with no exclusions, weekend rest periods of 54 hours (for five-day workweeks) and 32 hours (for six-day workweeks), increased meal-period penalties (a meal penalty is the money studios pay crew members for forcing them to work through lunch), and recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday.
The summary also mentions “living wage achieved” and “improved wages and working conditions for streaming.” Regarding the former, of particular concern is bringing the union’s lowest-paid members, the majority of whom are women, up to a standard that can support a life in expensive locales like Los Angeles. As to the latter, the reference to streaming is about the fact that so-called New Media streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Video, and Disney+ enjoy lower standards thanks to a 2009 agreement with IATSE. At the time, that agreement was justified on the basis that streamers were an experiment with “uncertain” economics, requiring “greater flexibility” from workers.
Locals are now planning membership meetings to discuss the agreement, and each local’s executive board will issue a recommendation as to whether to ratify. Members are awaiting the full language of the contract or detailed highlights, but at some point after that information is received, they will vote on ratification. During the last round of contract negotiations in 2018, membership did not vote on the tentative agreement until two months after it was announced.
IATSE’s ratification process is not a straightforward direct vote. Instead, the union uses an electoral college–style system. Each of the Hollywood locals have a number of delegates based on their size. Within each local, every member casts a ballot, with a winner-take-all result (i.e., if “yes” gets 51% of the vote, all of that local’s delegates will vote “yes” on the contract). The contract must win the majority of the 385 total delegates.
Importantly, this means the results can differ significantly from the popular vote. When the last contract was voted on in 2018, the delegate count came to 312 votes in favor, 73 votes against (Local 700, led by Catherine Repola, who was the only leader not to recommend ratification, was responsible for all 73 of the “no” votes). That looks like an overwhelming approval: 81% in favor, 19% against. However, the popular vote was around 53% in favor, and 47% against.
This is worth spelling out because ratification is not a done deal. After news of the tentative agreement broke on Saturday night, IATSE members began dissenting, loudly. I’ve been speaking with members for months and was inundated with messages from members voicing questions and concerns.
For one, the summary doesn’t discuss pensions—while the agreement apparently funds the current $400 million health and pension deficit, there is little information as to whether streamers will support members’ health care and pensions, which are based on VHS/DVD and Blu-Ray sales. Without such residuals, the deficit problem will only begin anew.
The raises in the agreement are 3% per year, the same as the now-expired contract; reportedly, AMPTP actually wanted to lower raises to 2.5%. Inflation is currently at 5%, and, for comparison, the John Deere contract that 10,000 UAW members overwhelmingly rejected, choosing instead to strike, included an immediate 5% raise.
Additionally, there is the 10-hour turnaround time. Many members already have that in their contract. Those who do not include Local 700, which has 9-hour turnarounds. In an industry where 12- to 14-hour days are standard, and 20-hour days a not unheard of occurrence, rest periods are one of the key issues. Meal breaks, too, are related to this concern—some members worry that even significantly higher meal penalties won’t be enough to discourage studios from working people through their breaks. This practice not only contributes to health problems for members who cannot eat or rest for a full day, but, by exhausting a person, this exacerbates the dangers of their driving home after work.
“It’s clear that meal penalties and short turnaround times cost the studios pennies, while they cost us years of healthy living and the chance to ever have a family,” says one Local 800 member. “It’s a sucker’s bargain. You can literally watch in real time a producer decide that it’s worth keeping us on the clock for another hour at 3 AM, all of us, because of a measly financial disincentive that they factor into their budgets before projects even start—day after day, show after show.”
The complication, says Spring Super, a television makeup artist and Local 798 member, is that in securing 10-hour turnarounds without exclusions, IATSE leadership “got what they were asking for, but membership has moved further beyond this through the struggle.” She says that while it will be tricky to demand more than what the union originally went to the bargaining table with, “leaders need to hear their members’ pleas for a 12-hour turnaround.” Similarly, some members speak of a desire for limits on the length of a workday; this, too, by all available accounts, was not on the table.
When the Instagram account ia_stories, which heightened members’ outrage over untenable working conditions with its steady stream of anonymized workplace horror stories, posted news of the tentative agreement on Saturday, hundreds of unhappy comments flooded the page. Member after member criticized the agreement, declaring their intention to vote against it. So, too, have IATSE’s social media pages been met with critical responses.
But as is always the case, social media posts are not a representative picture, and while I have heard from members who say membership in their local is strongly critical of the agreement, it is hard to know exactly how widespread opposition is within the membership. There are certainly some IATSE members who are happy with the contract, and feel that even a milquetoast victory will help set the stage for future wins.
“My impression is that significant ground was covered, or recovered, depending on how you look at it,” says one Local 600 member. “We didn’t get everything we wanted—we still have specific questions on the pension and health contributions… and producers held on to some major things—but it’s hard not to feel like my local came out significantly better than our current agreement.”
Members speak of the divide over the agreement as often playing out along generational lines, with older members who have endured decades of the exhausting norm more accustomed to the status quo, uncertain what to make of younger members’ focus on longer rest periods.
“A few years ago, if you brought up a horrendous story of your worst job, it would turn into a circle of workers one-upping each other for bragging rights,” says one Local 800 member. “That culture has changed now, with the subject making us furious at the very profitable companies who needlessly put us in these positions. The days and weeks don’t need to be this long in order to make good shows. Hollywood is a successful factory, but it’s costlier for the average worker than the studios have been willing to admit. A handful of wealthy celebrities and hyper-successful department heads doesn’t change the fact that many of us die younger than we should, or reach an early forced retirement when our knees or backs give out.”
What is clear is that some portion of the membership is strongly opposed to the tentative agreement. They feel that this is the moment to strike to win major changes, to show the studios that the bare minimum is not enough. Given the uptick in private-sector strikes across a range of industries, as well as the evidence of heightened demands among nonunion workers, they are right: they have more leverage than they have had in a long time and there are indications that should IATSE strike, workers will have the support of the broader labor movement. Plus, a big win for IATSE would set the tone for the other Hollywood unions whose contracts are almost up.
What remains to be seen is whether those opposed to the agreement can clear the hurdle of the ratification process without a strong existing organization or support from any formal leaders—members from several locals have said they are awaiting the opinion of Local 700’s Repola, but unlike in 2018, dissent is diffuse, fomenting online and permeating across locals.
However, the workers at John Deere were in a not entirely incomparable place: lacking organization or the support of formal leaders, and with their most recent strike dating all the way back to 1986. Yet they rejected their contract with 90% of members casting ballots, and 90% ballots opposed to ratification. It can be done, if members believe it must be.
“These billion-dollar corporations try to take everything they can from IATSE. They treat us like rental equipment,” says Brandon Silverman, an assistant editor and member of Local 700. As to whether membership might reject the agreement, Silverman says he is waiting for his local’s membership meeting before making predictions, but that should the agreement be inadequate, it can be voted down. “Local 700 has rejected contracts before, and Local 600 has been fighting for 12-hour turnarounds for a long time. Those are the two largest locals, and if both go no, it will only take a couple other locals to join them to reject it.”