What Razor-Thin IATSE Contract Vote Reveals About Discontent With Hollywood’s Status Quo

·5-min read

An Electoral College-esque system ended up keeping Hollywood from facing a widespread strike by below-the-line workers, as IATSE members approved their union’s latest contract with studios by the narrowest of margins.

But despite this result, the turnout by tens of thousands of Hollywood workers to reject a contract that leaders from all 36 nationwide IATSE locals had recommended shows that there is a significant portion of the workforce that is not pleased with Hollywood’s status quo and is willing to break ranks with union brass to voice that discontent.

“This sort of result is very rare over the last 30 years, but it is common over the past year,” Rutgers labor professor Susan Schurman said, referring to the wave of strikes seen across the United States in 2021. “Workers are angry, and working conditions are very high on people’s minds.”

Overall, 50.4% of members from IATSE’s 13 West Coast locals voted to reject the proposed Hollywood Basic Agreement, while 52% of members from the 23 locals outside the West Coast voted to approve the Area Standards Agreement, which covers film and TV shoots outside of Hollywood.

If IATSE’s contract vote had used the popular vote, studios would have had to choose between either returning to the negotiating table or refusing and risking IATSE staging a strike on the rejected Hollywood Basic Agreement. Since three of the locals governed by that agreement — the Editors, Art Directors and Cinematographers Guilds — are nationwide locals, that would have effectively shut down productions across the U.S. and Canada even though the Area Standards Agreement would have been approved.

But IATSE uses a delegate voting system akin to the Electoral College, with each local assigned a certain number of delegates who vote on ratification based on how their members vote. This means that the those three nationwide guilds have more delegates than the other 10 West Coast guilds, which are all regional.

How did this affect the vote? 256 of the 444 West Coast delegates — or 56% — voted in favor of ratification as eight of the 13 locals saw a majority of their members approve the contract. But only one of the three nationwide locals, the International Cinematographers Guild, voted to reject the contract. While IATSE hasn’t publicly released the results for each local, testimony from members and memos acquired by TheWrap show that the other West Coast locals that voted to reject were Locals 80 (grips), 728 (lighting technicians), 705 (costume workers) and 892 (costume designers).

The link between these locals? They all represent production jobs with early call times and late dismissals and had organized heavily around longer turnaround times for productions. A common criticism of the Basic Agreement is that many productions already meet the 10-hour turnaround requirements gained by the union for all productions, meaning that many workers would not get more rest time even though productions like first-season TV shows that regularly see shoot days go 15 hours or longer would see some change.

But the other two nationwide guilds, the Editors and Art Directors Guild, both narrowly voted in favor of the contract. According to a memo from Editors Guild leadership, just 51.9% of the 7,093 members who participated in the contract vote approved the contract, making the margin just 269 votes. Had either of these locals swung in the opposite direction, the Hollywood Basic Agreement would have been rejected.

But while IATSE will not stage the first strike in its history, this bears repeating: Of the 45,402 IATSE members who took part in the ratification vote, 22,565 voted against approving a contract that every single member of the union’s leadership urged a “Yes” vote on in multiple memos, videos and online town hall meetings. Contract ratification votes often fall so overwhelmingly in favor of approval that they feel almost like a formality in Hollywood labor, yet this time it was hundreds, not thousands, of votes that proved the difference.

This isn’t the first time that Hollywood has seen a growing wave of militancy within its guilds. The Writers Guild of America West held a united front to demand the elimination of packaging fees from talent agencies, with members even showing their confidence in the campaign by re-electing then-president David A. Goodman during the height of the writers’ agency walkout. Sources have told TheWrap that rank-and-file members are continuing to organize ahead of the next contract talks in 2023 and are willing to strike to push for changes to streaming residual structures.

Meanwhile, over at SAG-AFTRA, critics of former guild National Executive Director David White and the guild’s health plan trustees formed SOS Health Plan, a an offshoot of the Membership First caucus demanding a reverse of recent changes that have barred retirees from counting residuals toward their minimum earnings requirements to qualify for guild health coverage.

Backlash against the health plan changes became a core part of this year’s guild elections, and while Membership First did not win the presidency, one of its leading members, Joely Fisher, was elected as secretary-treasurer.

To varying degrees, this growing subset of Hollywood labor demanding more radical change to the entertainment industry is having an impact on guild leadership. Even though the contract cycle for IATSE has come to an end, Schulman suggested that IATSE President Matthew Loeb and the rest of the union’s leaders will need to respond to this narrow vote by keeping members engaged and showing them that they will continue to push on turnarounds and other key wage and working condition issues in the next round of talks.

“Smart unions know where the pressure points are to get working condition changes, and IATSE is a smart union,” she said. “The entertainment industry will be in a different place in 2024 than it is now in this post-pandemic shutdown period, but if the members who opposed this contract stay engaged and find other ways to keep up the demand for change, the union leaders and the studios will respond knowing how close they were to a strike this time.”

And if the union leaders can’t keep up with that growing militancy? “Well…unions have elections,” Schurman said.

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