Last weekend, tens of thousands of members of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. With 89.66% of eligible members participating and 98% voting to authorize the strike, the vote could lead 60,000 workers to walk off the job and bring the entertainment industry to a halt.
As consumers, we tend to associate the entertainment industry with acting stars, elite directors and producers, and big studio executives, but hundreds and and even thousands of workers make every production possible, and many of them are grossly underpaid, overworked, and denied basic necessities like breaks and time to sleep between shifts. Combined with the explosion of streaming services and ever-increasing demands for studio-quality productions, workers in the entertainment industry are being run into the ground, and they have reached a breaking point.
IATSE represents over 150,000 technicians, artisans, and craftspersons in the entertainment industry, including live theatre, motion picture and television production, broadcast, and trade shows in the United States and Canada. The union is composed of many different locals, not all of which are currently voting to authorize a strike. According to Deadline, “there are actually two separate strike authorization votes going on—one among the union’s 13 Hollywood production locals covered by the Basic Agreement, and the other covering 23 different locals outside Los Angeles who work under the Area Standards Agreement.” In this special Working People episode, recorded on Oct. 1, while the strike authorization vote was taking place, we talk to a panel of IATSE members and hear firsthand about the work they do, the unfair working conditions they’re fighting against, and the significance of the strike vote. Panelists include Marisa Shipley (Local 871), David McMahon (Local 52), and Fae Weichsel (Local 600).
Additional links/info below…
- Petition: Tell AMPTP to Give Film and Television Workers a Fair Deal
- IATSE website, Facebook page, and Twitter page
- IATSE Stories on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter
- IATSE Film & TV Negotiations Toolkit
- IATSE Press Release: “AMPTP Film and Television Negotiations Stalled, Union to Hold Nationwide Strike Authorization Vote“
- Marissa’s Twitter page and Instagram
- David’s Twitter page
- Fae’s Twitter page
- Alex N. Press, Jacobin, “Film Industry Workers Are Fed Up With Long Hours“
- Brendan Gallagher, Jacobin, “If Hollywood Workers Strike, the Entertainment Industry Will Grind to a Halt“
- Gene Maddaus, Variety, “Everything You Need to Know About Hollywood’s IATSE Strike Vote“
- Dominic Patten & David Robb, Deadline, “IATSE Members ‘Deserve Respect’ Says Union As Strike Authorization Ballots Hit Inboxes This AM“
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive freemusicarchive.org):
Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song”
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People. A podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and supported entirely by listeners like you. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the host of Working People and the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and we’ve got a really special edition of the podcast for you all today.
So, we are recording this panel conversation on Friday, Oct. 1, which is a very important day. If you haven’t heard, starting today, tens of thousands of members of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, will begin voting on whether or not to authorize a strike by the union. Which, if passed, could lead 60,000 workers to walk off the job and bring the entertainment industry to a halt. Because let’s not forget, it is the workers who make this industry run, and it is the workers who have the power to halt production if they are not treated with the respect, fairness, and dignity that they deserve.
According to a press release put out by the union on Sept. 21, “After months of negotiating successor contracts to the producer IATSE Basic Agreement and the Theatrical and Television Motion Picture Area Standards Agreement, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers of the AMPTP announced Monday that it does not intend to make any counteroffer to the IATSE’s most recent proposal. Throughout the bargaining process, the AMPTP has failed to work with us on addressing the most grievous problems in their workplaces, including: Excessively unsafe and harmful working hours; unlivable wages for the lowest paid crafts; consistent failure to provide reasonable rest during meal breaks, between work days, and on weekends; workers on certain ‘new media’ streaming projects get paid less, even on productions with budgets that rival or exceed those of traditionally released blockbusters.”
So, we have convened this special panel with union members to talk about all this and make sure folks out there understand the circumstances that led to this historic strike vote, what workers in the entertainment industry have been going through before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what everyone listening can do to show support. And we are recording this conversation for the Working People podcast, but we will also be running a video version of this episode over at The Real News Network YouTube channel. So if you want to see the video version, go check it out there. So once again, thank you all for joining us. And without further ado, let’s go around the table and get to know our wonderful panelists today.
Marisa Shipley: Thank you for having me. My name is Marisa Shipley. My pronouns are she/her. I am a freelance art department coordinator working in TV and film in Los Angeles, California, and I am the vice-president of IATSE Local 871, which represents a lot of majority and historically female crafts affected by huge pay inequity in the industry.
David McMahon: I’m David McMahon. I use he/him pronouns. I’m in the New York Local 52 of IATSE in the shop craft department.
Fae Weichsel: My name is Fae Weichsel. I am a Local 600 IATSE camera assistant. We’re based in New York City. My pronouns are they/them.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, thank you again so much you all for joining me. Obviously, one of the major issues that led to the strike vote is that you all, and your colleagues, are horrendously overworked. So I know that making time for this is not easy. And then especially with the strike vote starting today, there’s a lot going on. And so I really, really appreciate you all taking the time, and we’re really honored to have you all here on the show. So, in the grand tradition of Working People, we really love to get to know more about the folks that we’re talking to, right? I mean, one of the overarching messages of the show is that we’re human beings. We’re not just name tags. We’re not just job titles. We’re people with stories and families and all sorts of important information that really gets lost when we talk about worker struggles, if we ever recognize them at all.
And so, working in an industry that has such a big impact on so many of our lives, I think it really is doubly important for listeners and viewers to understand that there are just so many people who put their hands on these shows, on all the entertainment products that we enjoy, and that’s folks like you, right? And so I wanted to actually go back around the table and get to know more about you all, and how you came to do the work that you do. And if you could also give us, I guess, a sense of what that work is. Like, I guess there’s no such thing as a typical week in the entertainment industry, but I guess if you had to humour us, what might a typical week look like for you? So I guess, Marisa, if you can start us off.
Marisa Shipley: Yeah. I got into this work, it’s kind of a family business. My dad ran a set shop here in Hollywood building sets for commercials. So I grew up in a construction shop, art department, are kind of my people. I used to work for him during the summers, doing payroll and his bookkeeping, assisting with that. And then when I graduated from college, he was doing an additional project for the Department of Defense building out shipping containers as mobile educational units for the military. So, I helped project manage that for him and then went back into the commercial work. And then, as many things go in the industry, you just kind of keep saying yes, and then end up somewhere. So I started doing research for production designers, and then I started PAing for their teams. And then I started coordinating commercials and then moved on into TV.
So, I have been art department and set coordinating, freelance in TV, for six years now. And I often describe myself as fortunate in terms of my hours because I work 12 hours a day, five days a week. So I’m on a 60-hour work week, which is on the low end and kind of baseline for the industry, which is like a week and a half of work, if you’re talking about a 40-hour work week. So our baseline is very skewed, but I am definitely on the low end.
I, as an art department coordinator, serve as kind of the internal organized center of this creative whirlwind, which flies through production. I am in charge of budgeting and cost reporting, making sure we are on track and communicating with everybody when we’re not. I handle legal clearances to make sure that the things that end up on set are allowed to be there, and aren’t going to cost the production later. I act as the communication hub within my department, and then between our department and all of the others. So I kind of have my hands in each little piece to make sure it’s all running correctly.
David McMahon: Yeah. Also, basically the construction falls under the purview of the art department overall. I’ve been, at this point now it’s… 25 years now doing this. But I got started out, my first job at building scenery, was for a non-union theater shop. And that’s kind of where I learned the trade. I live in Philadelphia. I divide my time between Philadelphia and New York as a carpenter. At this point now, most jobs I’m the key carpenter, so I kind of run the crew, run a shop, and work with the coordinator to time out when and where everything happens. So it’s very much a logistical job as much as it is a craft. But, it’s amazing the things that we’ve been able to do, the people that I’ve met through this work is just amazing, interesting people who come at it from so many different random directions. I know it suits my ADD very well, frankly, but there’s very little that’s actually typical. There are some standard practices, but it seems like everything is a variation on it.
That said, this is also essentially gig work. IATSE, the origins in theater and stagehand work, that’s some of the original gig work. And putting crews together as needed per job is still the origin of this, it’s still the background to this, it still kind of hovers in the background of people not wanting to risk too much to stand out or to cause too much trouble, not be on the next crew, this and that. So that’s always in the background, although people come at this because they love to do their particular thing. For me, it’s just building stuff, and the more unusual, the better. And it’s been a really rewarding career that way, but extremely demanding. Demanding on your creativity, physical stamina, mental stamina when things really go sideways, but it’s satisfying too.
Fae Weichsel: I came from a union household. My mom was a public school art teacher and my dad a teamster. So even before I got into film, I kind of actually knew that side of the business, like union sort of labor stuff, going into it. And then I went to college, and then I came up through the camera rental house route, which is one of the many ways people get into camera. But like everyone said, there’s a lot of different stories. I know someone who was a full fledged chemist and now is a camera assistant. Everyone comes in very weird directions. And I came in through that way. So I’ve been very fortunate that almost my entire time in the industry has been union camera assisting work. Not that I haven’t done non-union work here and there, but then I kind of fell into the union organizing sort of side of things.
I also co-chair the Young Workers of the Eastern region. Local 600 is one of the national regions of IATSE as far as film goes. We cover the whole country, cover different regions and whatnot. So, it’s through that, just organizing a lot of different things in helping the various members come up to speed, because even if you know the industry or, like, how to do your jobs specifically really well…
I’m a focus puller myself, first AC, and so we’re in charge of obviously making sure the lens of the image is in focus, but also running our camera, whatever the operator needs to achieve what they need. Sometimes it can be complicated crane setups, wireless technologies, all that sort of stuff just making sure that everything is rigged correctly on the camera itself. And then obviously rigging is left to the grips and stuff, or like more established things. But even if you understand that side, the technical side, a lot of people would join the union and be like, okay, what’s the union, and that’s where we stepped in as Young Workers, just helping everybody get up to speed on all the things the union does.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s awesome. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a tinge of anxiety when you were talking, Fae, because I suppose it’s gone long enough that I could admit this to our dear Working People listeners and Real News viewers. But you all may remember back in the winter, I got in a rental car and I drove my ass all the way from Baltimore down to Bessemer, Alabama to talk with Amazon workers who were voting on whether or not to join a union. I got down there also to talk to a Real News Network board member, Danny Glover. And I went by myself because we hadn’t been vaccinated yet. So I piled in a bunch of camera equipment, but I couldn’t bring one of our great Real News studio folks with me.
So I had Dwayne and Kim on Zoom when I was in the hotel trying to coach me on how to use it. And to this day, I have nightmares about the fact that I shot my interview with Danny Glover out of focus. I mean, it wasn’t unusable, but it wasn’t as sharp as it could have been and I’ll never get over that. So, having tried at a very low level to do what you do for one day and fucking it up, just I’m grateful for all the great work that you all and your union siblings do on a daily basis. So I just wanted to share that. And David, you also brought something up that I think, it’s something that’s been on my mind the more that I’ve been reading up on the strike vote and all the different trades and different jobs that people in IATSE do. But it’s one of the things that I think is kind of hardest for people who aren’t in this industry to understand, right?
It’s like how do you standardize, like, say, practices or mechanisms for doing things, when your job is to create new worlds with each product, with each project? I don’t know, I guess I wanted to build on that, maybe starting back again with Marisa, like, how much of your work is consistent, and how much of it is just kind of like a project by project, learn as you go, or come up with new solutions as you go sort of thing? And, I guess, how does that tie into sort of the issues that you all have been facing recently?
Marisa Shipley: Yeah. I use the same systems and skills on every project in a gigantic variation of ways. So, there’s always a new challenge of finding that one set piece on the set we’re recreating that nobody has a record on, and I’ve gotten very good at Googling to figure out what that exact doll was in the background. Or like knowing the rights of artwork and European artists versus US artists, and what I need to clear with lawyers and what I know myself. And so everything plays out in a slightly different way, but it’s all drawing on the same skill set. I have always believed that one of the truly magical things about this business is that we all come together and start running. And that works because we all know our place and our piece, and how it all interacts with one another. And it’s this giant collaborative project.
And I see that also in the solidarity that we’re feeling right now, is that everyone is not just saying, this is what matters to me. But is hearing what matters to everybody else on the crew and saying like, all of this matters and we’re doing this together as a union, the way that we work together on our shows. And so that has been very cool for me to see.
I think that’s also why some of the systems don’t change as soon as they maybe should, because we are freelance, and so we hop from job to job, and so if you’re changing a system… Like, in March of 2020, I was still filling out literal carbon copy purchase orders for all of our orders on all of our shows, and it took COVID and people working from home and going digital to force that out of the business, right? Because on all of their individual projects and shows, everyone had to adapt all at the same time. But if one show is trying to implement a new system like that, it doesn’t tend to ripple through the industry as much. While very technologically advanced some of the systems on the backend are, we’ve been doing it the same way for decades.
David McMahon: Yeah. I think those are very good points. I mean, just speaking in terms of construction, when we are thinking about whether we have to build something that has to go into a location, we’re going to build something that’s going to be for the stage. In the front of our mind through the whole process is how it’s going to be used, who’s going to be using it, what are the needs of the scenics in terms of the material choices we built from, what are the needs of the set dressers who have it next, coordinating with the grips who make sure whatever fit in the truck fit in the door of the location where it’s going to end up.
All those kinds of, like, constant checking and rechecking with other departments along the way to make sure, because again, we all know that we’re in this together just a day in, day out kind of way. But, it also goes to the point of how they’re very specific categories and even within departments, there are different roles assigned to different people. And that serves when everyone’s firing on all cylinders, that works really well because where the boundary is to where you pass the thing off to the next person, and they’re kind of ready to receive it and then do their thing with it.
So, it’s very much like a relay at times and doing the handoff is really important, knowing how to do that well. And so, I mean, I’m going to be really curious to see what the strike vote looks like, the authorization vote looks like, with that kind of framing in mind. Just what I’ve been seeing over social media, once people feel hesitant at first, couple key points get made and they’re like right there. So I’m very curious to see how the vote totals go because, as Marisa was saying, there is this sense that all this happens from the team effort.
Fae Weichsel: Sort of building off with things David and Marisa said, it is a lot of applying a system or a methodology to the same problem. One of my favorite on set jokes is how many camera assistants does it take to change a light bulb? And it’s six; One to do it, and four to tell you how they did it on the last job. Because there are so many different ways to do the same task. For, perfect example, focus pulling. Some people will tape out marks on the ground, some people will put pieces of tape on their Preston units so they physically see it. Some people will sort of just put their fingers where the marks are and do it by feel. As long as it gets to the same end result that you need, it doesn’t really exactly matter how you do it.
So there’s a lot of flexibility in how you do your job. And that runs the gamut even down to the second AC, how they organize their bag or the loader, how they organize the overflow cart, and the batteries, and et cetera. But, within working through all the different departments, there are certain standards because you’ll go to a set and then, especially as a camera person, it’s not uncommon for me to go there and not know anybody else on the job. And because we all sort of share the same filmmaking language, once you figure out, okay, that’s the key grip, that’s the gaffer, that’s the first AD, you can kind of just plug into it and then everything works, even though I’ve never met these people 20 minutes ago and then we hit the ground running.
Marisa Shipley: I think also in terms of the working conditions, part of the question, one of the real challenges with this industry and our work, is that because the jobs are temporary and because we jump from job to job and we’re so busy and so tired when we’re working, it can feel hard to hold the line on working conditions because your crew members are like, okay, they’re saying it’ll get fixed next week. And things keep getting pushed off, and then you’re at the end of the job. And then you’re on a new job, and there’s the same problem. And so I think what we’re seeing right now is a collective crew outcry of like, no, no, you need to change the baseline system. We are not doing it this way anymore.
And yes, we can all individually work to negotiate above scale rates, or hold the line on hours, or talk to our above the line crew about their schedules and the fact that they need to consider the toll on crew in their schedules. But there is only so much that each individual person can do. We need to see systemic changes that prioritize the human beings, the crew behind these systems into the contracts and budgets, because the budgets and schedules are built and set before anyone gets hired on and then we are all truly amazing problem solvers. And so, we work our way through the job, problem solving one issue after the other, but we need to change it all the way back at the beginning so that we are not being forced to problem solve issues like not having a living wage and falling asleep when you are driving home from work. And the things that we’re talking about right now are really baseline worker rights.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. No, I mean, like you said it, it’s so vital for all of us to recognize both the human cost of not having those standards put in place and enforced and protected by a union contract. And also just like the human toll that it takes not having that. One of the things that just really makes me think just as someone, I don’t know, I guess now I’m in an adjacent industry in media. But I mean, it’s something that I see every day, is that I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, we have an entire team of amazing folks, everyone’s working. It’s kind of like you all described, every piece of content that goes up, there’s a whole host of stuff that has to be done to make that happen from researching the story, to pitching and talking about those pitches, to confirming guests, to studio getting guests set up right, to studio recording and editing and writing scripts, copy editing those scripts, fact-checking, publishing.
It’s like when you watch the end of these movies or series, as a culture, we’ve just been trained to sort of like have our eyes glaze over during the credits when they go so long, but it’s like, those are all people, right? Those are all people who’ve put their stamp on this thing. And I guess the way I would put it to the listeners is like, imagine if your name was on that, how much that means to you. And now expand that to all the people whose names are being listed there, all the people who are doing that work to make this thing possible and how little we actually think about that, how little we tend to care as consumers about that. And I guess I wanted to build on what you were saying, Marisa, and ask by way of leading us to this strike vote, the kind of issues that are being negotiated and being demanded by workers, because I know that there’s something here that viewers and listeners can really relate to when the pandemic hit.
We know obviously that disrupted a lot of industries; entertainment was disrupted as well, right? And one of the things that we’ve covered on the show and that’s been really striking to me, is that so many workers in different industries are facing the issues, where even though we’re not out of the pandemic yet, and God knows if we ever actually will be, so many industries are squeezing their workers for as much production as they possibly can. We spoke to workers at Frito-Lay who were on strike in the summer. They were saying the same things. They’re saying, like, during the pandemic, people are eating a lot more chips. So demand went up, and because Frito-Lay treats its workers like shit, there’s high turnover. And the way that they make up for that is by pushing the workers who are still on crew to do forced overtime, to not have any time with their families.
It’s something that coal miners in Alabama have been saying. They’re saying that we’ve been doing tons of forced overtime, not having time to see our families, Amazon workers, gig workers. It seems like such a pervasive problem for just the working class in general, being squeezed until we have nothing left to give. It really shows you the difference between having a union and having that kind of solidarity with your coworkers and the ability to stand up against the bosses and demand what is rightfully yours. So anyway, I’ll shut up and kind of turn things back over to y’all, and ask if you could maybe give viewers and listeners a sense of some of the things that you’ve already mentioned, right? The long hours, the erratic kind of project, moving from project to project, freelance based model. I guess, could you give us more of a sense of what has driven thousands of IATSE workers to actually be at this moment now where there’s a strike vote, authorization vote happening?
Marisa Shipley: It has always been really interesting to me to be in a highly visible industry that issues are talked about a lot for a very specific number of people in the industry. And there is this gigantic invisible workforce behind all these projects and our conditions do not get talked about. So when I see stories of an actor whose costume was built so that they could breastfeed on set, I think that’s wonderful. But I think about all of the crew members who are not given a space to do the same, and have their milk supply dry up because they are not given the proper conditions for that. When I see stories about pay equity being fixed for above the line people at HBO, that’s great. I support that, but also as an art department coordinator, my contracted wage and the basic agreement is $16.82 an hour and the next lowest paid person in my department, an assistant art director, makes about 44.
So my contracted wage is 38% of the next lowest paid person is making. And my craft is made up of 81% women in an industry which is heavily male. So, when we’re talking about a living wage for the lowest earners, it is members like me and members of my local who are making within dollars of a minimum wage. Living in Los Angeles, our script coordinators and writer’s assistants are in the writers’ room with people who are making thousands and thousands of dollars a week talking about their vacation homes and the Rolex that they’re buying. And we’ve had a script coordinator say like, I am sitting there wondering if the meal that we’re going to order for lunch, if I can stretch that to dinner, and that’ll be the one thing I eat today.
And writers’ assistants who are talking about the almost expired groceries in the kitchen and splitting them up between the assistants in the office to take home for the weekend. And this is in Hollywood, on huge network shows for billion dollar mega corporations. And so I think it has often felt difficult to discuss this with the outside community because there is this sense of like Hollywood, people dream about working in these jobs like, I would do that for free or, I would just kill to work in the industry. And I understand that it is magical the way that we come together. And I love telling these stories and I actually love my job, but we are also workers who deserve a fair living wage for the work that we contribute to the project, which makes them money.
When we are talking about our schedules, it is not just that we have long hours. I think there are a lot of workers who could say, I had a really bad week and I worked 14 hours a day for a week. But we are doing it day after day, week after week, for months on end, and with absolutely no control or predictability to our schedules. So for the single mom working in the industry who has to figure out, one, affordable childcare, but then, two, childcare that she can notify at 11:00 PM on a Sunday that her call time is actually 7:00 in the morning, right? The ripple effects of the conditions are massive and I think crew are unwilling to keep problem-solving these for the employers. The employers need to provide humane conditions for all of their workers, and that includes the freelance film crews, which it feels like they often dismiss.
David McMahon: This is a long-term trend. The conditions that we’re in right now are planned. There’s a lot of like, oh, this is the nature of the business and everything like that, but that’s simply not the case. This is human beings putting together these schedules. It’s not some kind of natural phenomenon that we have no control over. This is people planning the conditions we’ll be working in. And again, I mean, I guess, my first union job was 1995. And what I see over this long trajectory here is the preproduction phase has gotten shorter and shorter, and now we’re almost in just react mode from day one. The planning all happens on the fly. People have the ability to communicate more easily now, but that becomes the next level of abuse where it’s just like, now you are kind of just on call all the time.
Sometimes depending if you have a particularly tricky situation, if you’re in a position of responsibility, you take this homework, this work home with you, you try to do your research, you still kind of are on the phone with someone. After hours, you try to figure something out because you’ve got to have your plan ready for the morning. So that’s part of this and this… It’s just reached a breaking point really. I mean, realistically, we’ve just gotten to that limit where nobody wants to be part of the crew that failed to fulfill what was needed. Because people have such an attachment to what we’re doing, I feel this all the time where just like the whole the show must go on frame of mind.
And everyone doing this work has that in them, and it’s just frankly taken advantage of. We like what we’re doing, we’re committed to what we’re doing, we want to do good work. We’re going to see what’s up there as the result of our labor, and we want it to speak for us as well. And that gets taken advantage of. And so it’s hard. It’s, you walk this line between knowing the appropriate level for the budget that you’re in, but everyone wants to go that little extra, do that extra thing to make it special, and that can easily be played upon. I ended up in construction because there was a long period of time where I was a single parent. And fortunately in construction, we probably have the most predictable hours of all the departments, and I needed that. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I was part of a shoot crew. I would have had to leave the business to raise my son because you can’t…
Well, in fact, I mean, I used to belong to another IATSE Local in Philadelphia, Local 8, which was the stagehands local. And I had to give up that card, because I couldn’t be on call the way that you needed to be to be a stagehand when I was raising my son. And so that was a little bit more when I traveled to New York for work and that kind of thing, driving to and from Philly from New York daily, when my son was in high school for about 13 months. It was a trying week. I was literally driving 1000 miles a week. And I did that for 13 months. But that’s what it took. That’s what it took to get my health care, all the other benefits that are tied into the hours you work.
And again, keeping in mind, this is all in its own way you can get into bigger, longer-term work, but the bottom line is we’re all day players in this business. We’re all replaceable, and I think that’s a little bit where there’s been a little bit of going, you know, wait and see how everyone feels about this situation in terms of these contract negotiations, because no one really does want to be that troublemaker because crews get assembled per job. The wait and see phase is over now, and I just see so much solidarity and it’s a really good thing.
Fae Weichsel: Yeah. As far as if you’re full-time on a show, depending on the show it can be, you could start at 4:00 AM on Monday morning, you start there, shoot 12, 13 hours, and often your calls will… Either you shoot 12 hours and then you have a 10 hour turnaround and your call will be fairly similar. Or you’ll shoot that 14, 15 hours, like we talked about, your call gets pushed back. And then before you know it Friday, you’re doing what we call splits which turns into a ‘Fraturday.’
So, your call might not even be until 3:00 PM. You work another 12, 14 hours. You’re getting off in the morning, 9:00 AM on Saturday morning, you have to then drive home. Luckily in New York, I’m not driving. But if you work anywhere else in the country or you live in New York and don’t live within the city, which is a lot of the crew because New York is so expensive, you then have to drive home, sleep, whatever. And then before you know it, you have to go to bed if you want eight hours of sleep, so early on Sunday, to make that 4:00 AM call time.
Again, if you don’t live in the city, you have to drive to work and rinse and repeat. One of the most comfortable shows I ever had was, I did a show that had [a lot of] children in the show cast. And because of their limited hours, I remember that I was actually able to meet up with friends during the week, which, it’s never happened since. And unless I get on another show with kids, it probably will never happen again, because their limits are really hard and no one’s going past those. But otherwise, it’s like, oh, if I’m on a staff job, I’ll see my friends on the weekends or I just won’t see them until it’s over, which is not uncommon at all.
And there’s no way of doing… We joke one of the best ways to get work is to book a vacation because you’ll probably… Okay. Finally, I’m going to take some time for myself, and then you’ll get the call and it’s like, well, if you’re always… Like everyone’s been saying, we are freelance. I think even legally, we’re technically rehired at the end of every day. If something goes wrong, you’re just gone. How do you make plans? How do you try to do trips? Going to weddings? I was reading an IA Stories page about a script coordinator who had to keep their laptop on them full-time, and they were at a funeral, and they had to leave the funeral early to go send these scripts out.
And it’s that sort of thing. Back when I was a second AC, you would have these things where your call time’s 5:00 PM, but you need to pick up gear that day. So you need to wake up while the rental house is open, they have regular business hours. So even if you got off at 6:00 in the morning, you need to wake up to call them at some point, and get all that stuff sorted out. Maybe you’re calling the teamster captain, so you’re working even in that 10 hour turnaround, which is insanely short as it is, not counting the travel time. So that’s sort of the week in the life of working on a set full time.
Marisa Shipley: And I do think COVID has just increased that pinch, right? And you hear David talking about it in prep, Fae’s talking about it in, too, the shooting crew, and it carries into the post crew as well. Postproduction is squeezed into tighter and tighter timelines. And even though they are not tied to the shooting crew, they are working just as abusive hours. So it is really the system at its base has no value for the human lives, which its schedules affect, preproduction all the way through to post.
Maximillian Alvarez: Beautifully put. Because it really is at base what we’re talking about here. Like, do you see the people who make your industry run as human beings who are in any way deserving of sleep, of time outside of work, of basically just living with the dignity of knowing that your entire life does not revolve around this one production. And I think that again, as we’ve kind of been talking about, the answer for most employers is no. I mean, and in a lot of ways they’ve been entitled to feel like it’s not their job to think otherwise. And again, it just really highlights the importance of workers having the ability to band together and to say, actually, no, we are human beings and we demand to be treated as such.
I remember working as a temp. I was working at warehouses back in Southern California back [home, Marisa]. And it was kind of, there’s so many eerie similarities to what we would hear on the warehouse floor to what y’all are describing. We were constantly reminded of the hundreds of desperate people who were literally waiting outside of the gates at 4:00 in the morning, every morning, to see if someone didn’t show up or to see if someone got fired. And so, you were constantly reminded of your dispensability every single day, but then you add on to that everything that you all were saying, what you and your union siblings in IATSE are kind of going through is the perfect convergence of so many exploitative problems in that workers are facing all over the place.
The gig work model that you all were talking about, as you said, David. It’s like in a lot of ways, the entertainment industry kind of predated the gig work model, but also there’s that, do what you love so you’ll never work a day in your life, right? And there’s that sense that I think teachers get, that health workers get, academics, so many people in these industries where the work that you do is supposed to be compensation enough.
And if you complain, you’re just ungrateful. I remember a really amazing woman, the second person I ever interviewed for this show, is Glynndana Shevlin. She works at the Disney Hotel over there in Anaheim, and she would always put it this way: She said, we make the magic. And you could hear it when she talks about it. She takes so much pride in making that magic, but she even admitted, she’s just like, “I realized that I can’t pay my bills, we had people living out of their cars, is that what the magic is worth? Or if the magic is that important to so many people around the world, then why are we treated that way?”
Anyway, I mean, it’s just my way of saying that it’s ridiculous and awful that so many human beings who make some of the most widely seen and enjoyed products and productions in the world are treated with such callous disregard. And I don’t want to keep you all too long. So I know we should wrap up, but I wanted to, by way of talking about what’s happening with the strike vote now, and I guess what listeners and viewers should have their eyes on, how they can show support, I wanted to squeeze one more question in there related to the pandemic, because I know that it was in the quote from the IATSE press release that I mentioned in the intro that the streaming services have also played an interesting role here. And I imagine a lot of listeners and viewers are curious to know how that has impacted the “traditional” model in the entertainment industry. I guess could I ask about that really quick, like how that kind of plays into this whole situation?
Marisa Shipley: The more and more streaming services there are, the more and more content they need to produce for them. And the fact that there is no longer this kind of typical industry network schedule for shooting and releasing shows, as a crew member it does really feel like there is just always so much work, and because there’s such a high demand, they’re squeezing everything into as short a schedule as they can, and putting as little into it as they can. And as a crew member, you’ll often hear someone make a comment of like, well, we want to see the money on screen, right?
So there’s this justification that is made that if they cannot… They’ll pay for that set piece because they can see it on the camera, but the person who finds that set piece, they can’t see on the camera and there’s a disconnect between those two things. But it requires the person to find the thing and all contributes to what is on screen. When new media, the streaming services started, the union agreed with the industry of like, this is a new model, we will kind of give you a break on the conditions and rates that the industry is working under.
And there was this promise that like down the line, we’ll figure it out and we’ll fold everything back into the normal rates and normal working conditions. All of that predates my work experience in the industry, so that’s how long it has been. And there is no reason that anyone working for any of these giant corporations on any project should be working for reduced rates, or not getting pension contributions, because it is a streaming show. And it’s really frustrating for crew for that to continue. And so that’s one of the large things at the center of our current negotiation.
David McMahon: Yeah. I mean, the new media part of this… So just a few weeks ago, I was working for Amazon. They have this all scrutinized. They know when… They look to maximize everything. They will only do… They won’t go past a certain number of episodes, everything will be fit within the four corners of the contract and just driven to the maximum, that’s what they do. So the studios and HBO was given a break back in the day, and they still don’t match rates. When cable was new and we were kind of trying to help HBO get their footing, and now it’s the same with like Netflix and new media. And they just had to be forced every step of the way. This is like when GM got bailed out in 2008 and workers gave back to help out said we’re all in this together, all that stuff. And then when the money gets made, the profit are all theirs.
So that’s what we’re in. So it’s been a few contract cycles now where we got to revisit the new media, the not-so-new media, because this is the new model and because… So there’s a whole different retirement package aspect to this where contributions are not being made. So there’s a whole reformatting that’s got to happen, but it will happen, because we’re working for some of the wealthiest corporations in world history, we’re working for Amazon, we’re working for Apple, Apple wants their own special break. Now, this is not happening. Any inch they can take, man, they will run with it. And that’s where we’re at. And it’s just to the point now where enough people, this is the moment with this cycle, it’s become very clear what their attitudes are. We saw what happened.
Just a quick example of an opportunity exploited was lunch breaks. So during COVID we’ve returned to work with, with testing. This is all still pre-vaccine and everything else, we’re returning to work with testing and safety protocols and all this kind of stuff. So we’re spread out for lunch and all this kind of stuff. Well, now that evolved into rolling lunches and no planned meal breaks and no one getting a real break, now you eat your lunch at your bench or whatever. So just one more thing where we’re out there risking ourselves for entertainment, and the measures taken to sort of establish safety protocols, then as time goes on, are further avenue for exploitation. It’s just got to stop.
Fae Weichsel: Yeah. I do think COVID definitely had a factor to play in sort of just everything. I know that for some who people work back to back jobs, COVID was sort of the first time that they ever actually had to stop and got time to spend time with their family. And maybe not time with their friends, but call their friends, get back into old hobbies, have a life. Again, I remember I had that feeling of like, what do I do when I don’t have to work and I want to do stuff? There was literally like, I don’t fucking know what to do.
And there’s the months and months of that, and then we get back to work pre-vaccine, the producers put all this stuff of how we’ll get back to work safely because that was a part of it. They had to show the government that we could get back to work safely. It wasn’t just a get back to work and all that stuff happens and they’re like, oh, yes. And we’ve consulted epidemiologists and they’ve shown, hey, we have to do 10 hour days because past 10 hours you [are] more likely to get sick. And in the beginning, that happened. I was on one of the first jobs back in August of 2020, and within two months that was out the window. And we’re back to the 14 hour days and not taking these breaks. While we’re still in the pandemic, the vaccine comes out, all these other workers… We’re in that essential worker, but nonessential worker category and the producers don’t do anything for us to get a vaccine.
I mean, I know for us in New York, the only reason we got a vaccine was because Cuomo had a scandal, frankly. And everyone’s just like, wait, all these immediate promises that were life, for us to get back to work promises immediately went out the window. They’re wanting us to work double the amount of hours to qualify for our same healthcare and pension. And we’re talking to Amazon and Apple, countries that have more money than any other company has ever had in the history of the world. It’s ridiculous.
Marisa Shipley: I like that you called them countries because they have more money than some countries.
Fae Weichsel: Yeah. That’s why I said… Yeah, exactly. They have more money than so many countries do. It’s insane that we’re even having this conversation of, maybe add a few days to the schedule so you don’t have to do 14 hour days and maybe people can go just get some sleep and rest and not go home, shower, sleep, and immediately get dressed and leave again.
David McMahon: Could I add one more quick point? There’s a reason like eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will. That what you will is really important because that frankly also means political engagement. That means going to your church. That means your community. That means your bowling league, your kid’s softball game, all that kind of stuff. And the degree that people are kept constantly on edge working, trying to figure out how to handle all the various schedules and everything, that what you will goes by the wayside. And even that sense of a treadmill does not allow for people to devote sufficient political engagement to change those circumstances too. And that’s part of this too.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s really well put and really, really essential, right? Because it shows you how you zoom out, and you see how the broader sort of system works, right? It’s not a secret that in this country, we’ll take the United States, for example, the great voting block is the mass of non-voters, both people who have been given no reason to trust the political system that we have, but also people who are just regularly ground down so much that we don’t have time for any of that. Right? I mean, it’s just really left up to the professional politicians and pundits to be their domain and the rest of us just take what we’re given.
But I think it’s such an important point, David, that all of you have been saying, it’s like it saps our ability to live our lives, to be like social human beings, to have any sense of joy outside of work, right? And then also it really pushes us under the boot of a system that we do not have the time or strength or ability to fight against. And you expand that out to the broader kind of working class, there you go. That’s a big reason for why we are in such a shitty position today because the people who have the largest stake in changing the system are the people who are ground down the most by it and have the least collective ability to fight against it, which is why I guess, to tie it all back, we are honored to have you all on.
We are sending nothing but love and solidarity to all of our siblings over there, IATSE. On the eve of this historic strike authorization vote, I wanted to first just really thank you all so much for joining us and for sharing your experiences and your thoughts. I cannot thank you enough. And quickly before I let you all go, I guess I wanted to just go around one more time and ask if you have any kind of final messages for viewers and listeners out there, both about the strike itself and how they can show support and also any, I guess, sort of takeaway points that you want to leave folks with.
Marisa Shipley: Thank you so much for having us. I would say to people who watch television and film, here are stories. Crew are very active right now on social media telling the personal impact of these working conditions. So, if you want to learn more about how this affects each individual person, engage with that. If there is a strike, we will definitely make known what ways for everyone to support. I think all of us hope to resolve this and get a fair contract for all of us without needing to actually engage in a strike. But this strike authorization vote is really a collective show of support for our bargaining team to go back to the table and have them engage with us. In addition to needing our conditions to change, the one thing that I am really taking away from this time is so much engagement by our members.
And one of the things that I hope to see going forward is for that to continue between negotiation cycles, because I think the union is the members, the members are the union rather, and this potential change is coming about because crew members are making it very clear that we have our leadership’s back in asking for change. It requires both of those pieces. And so to any union members listening, I would encourage you to not just be proud of being a union member, but engage in your local, make clear what is important to you, get involved in a committee, run for leadership because it requires our active participation and engagement to really push for change. It’s not just going to happen.
David McMahon: Yeah. I second that wholeheartedly. I mean, an active membership really is crucial. And it gets tough to do that again with the schedules, that we have to add that in there. And again, not so unintentional maybe. I would just say people can @ia_stories at Instagram, that is such a good place to begin. It’s all very personalized people’s experiences of what’s going on. I’ve been recommending that already. And even if you want to figure out what might be happening near you, right now, everything is kind of on the West Coast for now in New York. Our contract negotiations kick off at the end of October. So we’re a few weeks away from having to do anything similar, hopefully what happens, there’s enough show for us out there on the West Coast and the three national locals that that’s the impact that’s needed.
But yeah, iatse.net, there’s a toolkit there with all kinds of social media things that people can use. And it’s also a way to follow up on updates, but yeah. And just when you’re watching Netflix or something like that, just kind of unclick that little thing at the bottom that lets you move right past the credits, and just take a moment and reflect on all the names that are going by there. And I think that’s about all I got.
Fae Weichsel: Yeah. I think if people are looking for more information, there’s a petition that IATSE is currently asking people to sign. Then that’ll probably blast out more information as things occur with the strike authorization vote. But like David said, I think that’s sort of the one of the biggest things that this sort of moment has helped switch is the perception of what filmmakers are. I think sometimes people, especially from the ’90s era of filmmaking, think of it as like a couple of plucky, young college age people running around with a camera. And you know, it’s people with families and mortgages and some of us, we have dreams of doing stuff in the business, and for other people, this is a job. And I think that should be perfectly fine.
A stage hand once taught me the best. Sometimes they say, hey, we’re living the dream. They’ll say that on set sometimes. And a stagehand taught me, but dreams can be nightmares. And so just because for the stars or whoever’s behind it, is their creative vision. And I’m in camera, so I can be very lucky sometimes. If we have a 12 hour day, that doesn’t count the hair and makeup people who had to get there before me, that doesn’t count the teamsters who had to drive the hair and makeup trailer to set and to location, and we all know how bad LA, New York City, Atlanta traffic can be. They have to add all that extra… So it’s not just even the directly unionized of the 13 locals bargaining for this, it’s all these ripple effects that just go out from everywhere.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Marisa, David and Fae, again, thank you all so much for taking time to sit down and chat with us. I really, really appreciate it and we’re sending nothing but love and solidarity to you and to all members of IATSE. And to everyone listening, we will provide links in the show notes to the sources that were just referenced so that you can check them out. And yeah, definitely just to second David’s recommendation, check out the… What was it again, David? ia_-
David McMahon: @ia_stories on Instagram.
Maximillian Alvarez: On Instagram. It’s a really, really great account that does really put kind of human faces to these stories, to these productions, obviously something that we wholeheartedly endorse here at Working People. So definitely go and check that out. Voice your support on social media. This is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network and Working People. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support and support the work that we do here, so we can keep bringing you important stories and coverage just like this. Thank you so much for watching.