Hollywood Crew Union Votes to Authorize Strike Against Studios

LOS ANGELES — Hollywood moved closer to a production shutdown on Monday after one of the film and television industry’s lower-profile unions said that members had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees said that 90 percent of eligible members cast online votes between Friday and Sunday; nearly 99 percent of the votes were in favor of a strike. The union represents some 150,000 crew members in the United States and Canada: camera operators, cinematographers, script coordinators, prop makers, set builders, editors, makeup artists and other behind-the-scenes specialists. About 60,000 members are covered by the contract being renegotiated with studios.

The previous three-year contract expired in July. Renewal negotiations started in May and stalled on Sept. 20, when the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — a bargaining entity for studios, including Amazon, Apple and Netflix — declined to counter the union’s most recent proposal. The union wants better pay for streaming-service work; higher wages for coordinators and assistants on all productions; longer rest periods between shifts and on weekends; and strengthened requirements for meal breaks during marathon shoots.

Crews are feeling underappreciated, as deep-pocketed tech companies like Apple have colonized the entertainment industry.Credit…Tony Avelar/Associated Press

“I hope that the studios will see and understand the resolve of our members,” Matthew Loeb, the union’s president, said in a statement. “The ball is in their court. If they want to avoid a strike, they will return to the bargaining table and make us a reasonable offer.”

IATSE, as the union is known (or sometimes just I.A.), reiterated on Monday that it remained hopeful a strike could be averted. Crews last walked off the job in 1945. At the time, some stage workers were represented by a now-defunct organization called the Conference of Studio Unions; the rival IATSE was then controlled by the Chicago Mafia, which studios bribed to thwart labor unrest.

Since the 1940s, the entertainment industry has been upended roughly once a decade by a union strife, with advances in technology often the cause. The most recent was in 2007, when the Writers Guild of America staged a 100-day walkout over pay for “new media,” as online shows and film downloads were then called. The strike’s ripple effects cost the California economy $2.1 billion and 37,700 jobs.

Hollywood last had a paralyzing strike in 2007, when the Writers Guild of America staged a 100-day walkout.Credit…Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

On Friday, 120 members of Congress, including Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the Senate majority leader, sent a letter to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers urging the negotiation of a “fair” contract. “Failure to reach an agreement would threaten not only the livelihoods of these workers, but also their family members who rely upon work in your industry, sending shock waves throughout the U.S. economy,” the letter said.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said on Monday that it hoped to reach an agreement for a new contract and “keep the industry working.”

The organization added, “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.”

In previous statements, studios have signaled their determination to limit union gains by noting “economic realities and challenges facing the entertainment industry as we work to recover from the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Here’s the state of play:

What happens next?

The two sides will likely return to the negotiating table, perhaps this week. And now the union wields a big hammer: the ability to strike at any time.

When writers struck in 2007, studios used a backlog of scripts to keep shooting. If IATSE walks out, production would halt almost immediately: You can’t do much of anything in Hollywood without a camera operator.

What are the sticking points?

IATSE has repeatedly said that studios have barely budged on the union’s priority issues of meal breaks, rest periods, higher paychecks for the lowest-paid workers and streaming-related pay.

Studios say they have negotiated in good faith and given in to many of the union’s demands, including an agreement to fund a $400 million deficit in its pension and health plan without imposing premiums or increasing the cost of health coverage. Studios say they have also agreed to longer rest periods between shifts (10-hour turnarounds for most employees) and some wage increases. Studios offered crews an extra day off by finally recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which has been a federal holiday since 1983.

Why has rest become a union priority?

Entertainment companies are trying to make up for lost time during pandemic-related shutdowns by churning out new television shows and films at a breakneck pace. In particular, streaming services are hurting for content; Netflix and Disney have both experienced a slowdown in subscriber sign-ups because high-profile offerings have been delayed by the pandemic.

The pandemic also gave crew members new perspective. “We are people, not machines,” said Sarah Graalman, a makeup artist. “Just because working us into the ground has been normal doesn’t make it OK. Thousands of us realized that during Covid. We must have work-life balance.”

Ms. Graalman, whose credits include an Amazon comedy called “Harlem,” added: “My trick for staying awake while driving home from work at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. used to be smoking. Then I quit and switched to car screaming, eating wasabi peas or slapping myself dramatically across my face. Once, I fell asleep at a stoplight and a person knocked on my window to wake me up. ”

Why are companies risking a shutdown?

A few reasons. Production costs have already soared because of coronavirus safety measures, and studios say IATSE demands will endanger profitability even more. Costs associated with Covid-19 safety protocols can expand a project’s budget by as much as 20 percent, producers say.

To lure subscribers, streaming services have been offering exorbitant paydays to A-list actors, directors and producers. That means looking for cost savings in other areas, including what is known as below-the-line labor — crews.

And the companies are thinking about reverberations: If crews extract big gains, other Hollywood unions are going to demand similar treatment. The Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the actors union, SAG-AFTRA, all have contract negotiations coming up, with streaming at their centers.

How did IATSE rally its members?

Tension has been simmering between crews and studios for a long time, with crews — Hollywood’s equivalent of blue-collar workers — feeling overlooked and underappreciated, especially as deep-pocketed tech companies like Apple and Amazon have colonized the entertainment industry. Anger started to boil over in the summer, when an IATSE member, Ben Gottlieb, a young lighting technician, started an Instagram page dedicated to work-related horror stories.

More than 1,100 entertainment workers have since posted harrowing anecdotes on the page, which has 142,000 followers.

“It’s hard to know whether everyone’s posturing and whether they’re going to come back to the table and work this out,” Brad Simpson, a prominent film and television producer, said by phone. “In my 20-plus years, though, I haven’t seen the below-the-line crew feeling so unified and so upset.”

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