It’s typical for Hollywood’s labor unions to support for each other during labor disputes, but the support for IATSE during its current contract dispute with film and TV producers goes beyond the usual labor solidarity. That’s because the below-the-line workers’ union could be setting a standard for all future Hollywood contracts in the streaming era.
On Monday, tens of thousands of IATSE members voted to authorize union leaders to declare a strike if necessary as union leaders return to negotiations on Tuesday with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). IATSE is pushing for a hard limit on the number of hours a production can shoot per day to allow for reasonable rest periods during lunch breaks and on weekends, as well as higher wages for the lowest paid positions and on streaming projects.
For other Hollywood unions like the Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA, streaming compensation will be a major issue during the next round of bargaining agreement talks in 2023. It was an issue that was expected to be addressed during last year’s talks, but was largely tabled due to the turbulence inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But WGA West member Brenden Gallagher said he expects his guild will push hard for studios to pay up on streaming projects as a flurry of new services like HBO Max and Apple TV+ have turned new media, as the AMPTP calls it, into the new normal.
“The issues impacting IATSE are impacting all the other guilds, especially residuals and conditions around streaming,” he said. “The studios want to lower rates and push on the sort of things that labor groups have fought for, and they see streaming as a new medium that can disrupt all that.”
For WGA members who were around during the 2007 writers’ strike, the deal made on digital media compensation remains a sore spot. Prior to the strike, the AMPTP had reached a deal with the Directors Guild that offered just 2% of gross receipts for ad-supported streaming and 1.2% of gross receipts for rentals. That precedent prevented WGA from pushing for a better offer.
But Gallagher believes that if IATSE is able to significantly improve on compensation for streaming projects, it could send a message to studios that Hollywood’s entire labor force is united in demanding a similar increase in wages and residual payments.
“Many members of the WGA were members of IATSE Local 871 as writers assistants, so there’s a connection to what is happening in that guild and a lot of excitement,” he said. “IATSE’s fight could be the first step in a longer and more contentious opposition to what is being pushed by the studios and these Silicon Valley-fueled streaming companies.”
IATSE’s push for stronger rules on film shoot hours is also something that holds appeal for other Hollywood workers. Frances Fisher, a longtime member of SAG-AFTRA and VP of the L.A. local, recalled how the guild conceded in 2017 contract negotiations by allowing producers to call TV series regulars back on set sooner than the 12-hour minimum the guild wanted.
The rules on turnarounds for actors impact IATSE members since makeup artists and other key crew members need to show up before and/or after the cameras are rolling. After reading the IA Stories Instagram page in which members complained about 14-hour shooting days and the toll that takes, Fisher believes below-the-line workers deserve to get mandatory down time.
“It should be a 10-hour day with a 12-hour turnaround across the board, and if you have to add an extra day of shooting per episode, so be it,” Fisher said. “Enough is enough. We shouldn’t be endangering people’s mental health and well-being for the sake of a shooting deadline and a bottom line.”
In the days leading up to the strike authorization vote, all of Hollywood’s unions released statements of support –including a joint statement signed by the leaders of DGA, SAG-AFTRA, WGAE and Teamsters supporting IATSE’s push for “basic quality of life and living wage rights.”
The AMPTP is also facing pressure from politicians on both the federal and state level. Letters from 120 members of Congress, 33 New York state legislators and 50 California state legislators have been sent to AMPTP President Carol Lombardini over the past week urging her team to reach a deal with IATSE. “Behind-the-scenes workers are the beating heart of the entertainment industry,” Los Angeles Congressman Adam Schiff said in a statement on Monday. “The weeks and days leading up to this moment weren’t easy — and the days to come may be harder still, but it is my most ardent hope that an agreement can be struck soon, and that we will see an improvement in wages and working conditions for these talented individuals.”
SAG-AFTRA Los Angeles local VP David Jolliffe credits IATSE’s organizing efforts for calling attention to their positions. Along with the IA Stories page, members have started grassroots campaigns to help build a unified front while talks between IATSE and AMPTP were paused to restructure the industry’s COVID-19 protocol talks.
“What we’re seeing in IATSE and throughout Hollywood labor is a sea change in how contracts are looked at. Our rights and our benefits have been slowly eroded and we haven’t kept up, especially in the area of streaming,” Jolliffe said. “IATSE did a great job taking their time, letting the negotiation process play out, reaching out to members across locals and never letting their solidarity behind these issues erode.”
Fisher said the guild had even gained support for the threat of shutting down Hollywood production with a strike — even so soon after the pandemic halted shoots industry-wide. “I think all of us, not just those in IATSE, have been asking ourselves during this pandemic about what we are willing to risk to ply our trade and make our art,” she said. “And I think we are all now also asking…how much money do these studios need, really?”