The Hollywood strike that wasn’t

MK Lees offers context to the recent IATSE strike vote and potential settlement. This article was first published by Organizing Work.

Submitted by R Totale on October 21, 2021

On Saturday afternoon it was announced that the heads of 13 locals of The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE) and the American Motion Picture and Television Alliance (AMPTP) had come to an agreement on a tentative deal to close out negotiations on a contract for their over 30,000 workers. If approved by the membership, this deal avoids a strike that the membership had recently authorized by a margin of 98%. Early indicators suggest that the tentative agreement prevents most of the rollbacks proposed by the studios, and makes some marginal improvements in other areas, but stops short at some of the issues that led to the overwhelming vote to approve a strike. As the fight moves to the next phase, IATSE members will have to vote to ratify this deal or reject it and send their leadership back to the bargaining table. But with fundamental strike issues only weakly addressed by the TA, approval of the deal by a highly agitated membership is anything but guaranteed.

Low pay, exploitation by “streamers,” and inhuman working hours

Until last week, talks between the union and the studios were deadlocked over multiple issues rising to the level of crisis for workers in the film and television industry. Among those strike issues are unlivable wages for the lowest paid crafts and an indefensible disparity between wages and benefits for “traditional” TV and film work, and those of streaming counterparts such as Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+. But at the heart of the current struggle is perhaps the most unconscionable reality of the working hours, to which any version of the word “long” would not do justice. One member of the editors’ local 700 I spoke with recounted multiple instances of working 24 hours straight. He was once told to bring a hard drive to a producer after one of these shifts, fell asleep on the freeway, and totaled his car. “I called the producer and told him what happened and his first question was ‘is the hard drive okay?’ He drove to the site of the accident, picked up the drive and left me there. I didn’t even get a ride.” This type of story is as routine as it gets for many workers in Hollywood. 14 hour+ days for entire crews on set happen regularly, sometimes in grueling weather conditions. For certain trades, like the Cinematographers Guild of Local 600, who voted by the highest margin of all 13 locals to strike, even meal and bathroom breaks are regularly delayed or missed entirely. On days with these so-called “French hours,” in exchange for a meal penalty payment, workers are expected to steal any free moment to grab something to eat, an increasingly impossible task especially for camera crews under COVID safety requirements, which require masks to be worn at all times and food to be eaten off set. The result of these grueling hours has been an unending series of car accidents attributed to exhaustion such as the one described above, and even accidents on set that have resulted in tragedies.

In answer to growing calls by the membership to redress the above central issues and others, IATSE leadership took a hard line in negotiations, and among their demands were guaranteed breaks, a limit on daily working hours, pay and benefits parity between streaming and more traditional film and TV, and substantive raises that outpace inflation. The response from the AMPTP was status quo and rollbacks, and when talks became deadlocked, the negotiating team called for a strike authorization from the members.

The announcement of an overwhelming yes vote was met with enthusiasm by the labor left, Democrats, various high profile celebrities, and allied unions, a toothless gesture from the latter, as the Teamsters and various guilds will not violate their own pledges to not strike in sympathy, making actual labor solidarity off-limits. In addition, IATSE has numerous side agreements that include no-strike agreements with networks such as HBO, BET, and Starz where members would be permitted to continue working even while the rest of the membership is on strike. But despite significant limitations on wall-to-wall solidarity among the unions, the threatened work stoppage would mean tens of thousands of workers on strike nationwide and a shutdown of production on the majority of sets. If workers emptied out onto picket lines, they could win significant gains in their contract and signal a revival of militancy in a massive, but typically dormant union. However, now that an agreement has been reached, other questions become important: will workers improbably reject a highly compromised version of the things they need? If not, why is IATSE leadership out of step? How did we get here? What are the prospects for the future for workers in one of the most dynamic, profitable, and high profile industries in the world?

A brief history of IATSE

More than a century prior to 2021’s historic strike vote, IATSE was formed as a racist, exclusionary union whose primary purpose, in collaboration with movie industry capitalists, was to break strikes. Membership boomed after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, and the union passed through an exceptionally disgraceful period of corruption: rigged elections for leaders appointed by the mob, collaboration with employers on wage cuts, embezzlement, company bribes, and enormous salaries for union bosses. In 1937 when a rival, militant union, the Federated Motion Picture Crafts, struck, IATSE goons attacked the picket lines, leading even the conservative AFL local federation to label IATSE a “company union and scab herding agency.” The FMPC would later collapse, its members absorbed into the amalgamation of craft unions that make up today’s IATSE, part of a larger trend of conservative unions winning out under the NLRA.

Though the union would later clean itself up after federal intervention in the 1980s (mostly), the effects of its sordid history on the membership were profound. “We need five hundred members to have quorum to vote on anything,” a set decorator in IATSE Local 44 told me. “In my 22 years as a member, I can remember us getting that number maybe once.” A member in Local 600 I spoke to said she could identify her union rep, but that they had never responded to any of her attempts to reach out with questions about the union. Other members expressed dismay about being totally in the dark about the current negotiations until after they had already begun. With the exception of occasional recognition actions, no Hollywood IATSE local has struck in any meaningful way since 1945. Instead, union negotiators tend to quietly ratify small contract amendments every three years, as conditions worsen for all but the highly paid union leaders, such as current president Matthew Loeb, who draws a salary of over half a million dollars paid by members’ dues. The echoes of IATSE’s early days reverberate through to the present.

So the recent strike threat arrived, as some have characterized it, like a dinosaur waking up after a long period of slumber. Why now? According to one local 700 member I spoke with prior to the tentative agreement, “we’ve gotten such bad deals for so long, that leadership feels it is finally risking losing too much face with the members, so they are feeling pressure to do something to get a slightly less terrible deal.” But could a union that has at best eschewed militancy for all of its history mount an offensive capable of not just defeating rollbacks but achieving meaningful gains?

The lukewarm deal

In a previous article for Organizing Work, I quoted the Association of Flight Attendants union president Sara Nelson, who said “using power builds power.” Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Unlike some other Hollywood unions such as those of writers and actors, IATSE has lost whatever institutional memory of strike action it may have once had, with no veteran members to pass down lessons on how to fight and win to younger generations. That likely means there is pressure on IATSE leadership to settle because they have nothing but uncertainty about what a strike would look like, how to wage it, and what the odds of victory are, so the credibility of a strike threat is weak from the moment they walk into the bargaining room. After all, a 30,000-person strike requires massive logistical considerations, like designating and training picket captains, arranging picket line locations and supplying them, determining strike pay and eligibility, organizing picket shifts, and developing an effective communications system with the membership. IATSE would have had to build a lot of this from scratch. If anyone could do it, it’s the people who create entire movies in unthinkable time frames, but a strike is a different beast than a strike vote.

On the other side of the power equation, one wonders if the heads of Hollywood capital are actually willing to risk shutting off the flow of new content in an expanding global market where many of them are getting filthy rich. Corporate profits for film and television had been soaring through the stratosphere, upwards of $50 billion per year, even before the global population was locked down inside their homes during a pandemic and subscriptions to the various streaming services peaked. It is only through the daily labor of IATSE members and others that this vast amount of wealth for studio owners has been able to pile up. Even if the AMPTP accepted the entirety of IATSE’s bargaining proposals, which they very much did not, the effect on profits would be a drop in the bucket. There is a strong economic incentive to settle with the union to keep the cameras rolling and the profits accumulating, without risking even a week of losses.

It was in this context that members considered the question of what it would mean to pledge to strike if needed. But, as any union member has heard from their negotiating team when negotiations come to impasse, “the best way to avoid a strike is to authorize one,” the idea being that a documented willingness from the membership to go on strike gives the bargaining team the leverage to push the other side to concede enough to avert the threat. With 98% voting in favor, and a 90% voter turnout, there is no doubt that the members were ready to take disruptive action to win their demands. While all of the workers I spoke to last week were proud of their fellow members and ready to strike the moment the call came in, they all remained skeptical about what this vote would actually mean. “My most cynical guess is studios concede the bare minimum and Matt Loeb rolls over and accepts it, then sells it to membership,” said one 700 member. “The younger members will want to strike and the older members want to get back to work, because they’re less affected by the existential threats [because they are closer to the end of their career].”

The first part of this prediction has now essentially come true. The announcement of the tentative agreement led to enthusiasm and congratulations pouring in from everyone except, it would seem, the members who will actually be affected by the deal. @ia_stories, the Instagram account for sharing personal accounts of the abuse that has led members to fight back, was lit up on Saturday evening with outraged comments: “We can’t accept this. They just tried to give the bare minimum to keep things going.” “This just in… ‘IA negotiators ok with table scraps.’” “same same as it always is. 3%, ‘we had to give them a little..’. This is the same contract I’ve seen for 15 years.” A post which read “We have the power to vote no on this…they need 51% to pass this for approval. We came together for the vote before, we could do it again” received 500 likes in a matter of hours, and many rallying cries to strike were posted. It was difficult to find a single positive comment on the terms of the deal. Among the current concerns are:

- Raises that fall below actual cost of living increases
- No residual payments into pension plans from streaming media
- Only “improved wages” for streaming productions rather than equal wages
- Increased meal penalty rates instead of guaranteed breaks
- 10 hours guaranteed rest time between work days, rather than the desired 12, which also does not prevent productions from insisting on an 18 hour work day, so long as they provide 10 hours between days. (This can actually make things worse.)

For a conflict that centered the inhumanity of working people to death, the deal does seem to leave intact the system that forces crews to never see their families during filming, or take even a moment’s personal time for anything but sleep and meals, as they keep themselves just alive and awake enough to get through another day. Meanwhile the streamers will still unfathomably get away with paying substandard rates, even as they have become the most profitable distributors in the business.

However, even as the leadership is ready to call it a day and send their members back to work, even in a relatively anemic, top-down union like IATSE, the workers still have the final say in what action they will take to stand up for their own needs and those of the generation of workers who will have to suffer or thrive under the conditions allowed now. The option exists for IATSE members to vote down the proposed deal, and force the leadership to try for more and keep the strike option on the table. It’s not entirely unprecedented. In 2018, the editors’ local voted no on the recommended deal. A “vote no” campaign will have to contend with the leaders of all 13 locals who are recommending a yes vote, and the unity needed to mount an already dubious strike threat will be in jeopardy. But history shows that workers’ struggles can be unpredictable and with so many members fed up and now confronting raised expectations for their union, the Pandora’s Box of worker militancy is not so easily closed. Regardless of the outcome of this particular battle, the struggle will continue in new forms, and dissatisfaction with the results of one fight often leads to organizing for the next one.

Industrial unionism and the long game

The IATSE contract fight is just the current waypoint in a changing landscape of the TV and film industry. Disney’s acquisition of FOX makes them some kind of giga-monopoly and streaming networks aka “new media” is now all media. The first priority of economic change for capitalists is determining how the shift can lead to deepening the exploitation of labor, and undermining future collective power. If we’re going to fight back against the newest forms of studio attacks, it’s worth zooming out and looking again at the big picture of how labor in Hollywood is organized. When IATSE goes to the bargaining table, they are up against the precedents set by all the other unions on similar or identical subjects of bargaining, and vice versa. The scenario beckons Hollywood bosses to test the resolve of each subsection of their workers. This must be especially tempting to the newer money in town, like Netflix and Amazon who come to negotiations with dreams of breaking the backs of the unions rather than begrudgingly accepting labor’s seat at the table, as the more traditional studios have for decades.

We have to grapple with the legacy of how our unions were set up, which is a legacy of craft unionism. This form of organization is an antiquated union system of the old American Federation of Labor designed to protect the market value of skilled trades. It was never about uniting workers based on class interest, but rather dividing them into subunits that would define their own parochial interests, and sign agreements with employers to secure them. These agreements contained staggered expiration dates and prohibitions against striking, securing for employers their main interest– continued work– in exchange for slightly higher wages. This system was challenged first by the Knights of Labor; then by the Industrial Workers of the World, who popularized the concept of “One Big Union” and won strikes and built organizations that crossed craft lines; and finally by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who were able to secure long-term unions based on a shared industry, where all workers on one job site, like a steel mill, an auto plant, or a packinghouse, were united into one single organization.

These examples might seem antiquated or unrelated to Hollywood, but the IWW’s name appeared recently in the candidate statement of none other than David Simon, the creator of HBO’s The Wire, in his campaign for the council of the Writers Guild of America East, who represent screenwriters and journalists mostly on the east coast. The historical reference to the Wobblies was deployed in a rather shocking way.

At the same time, I’m entirely aware that the WGAE exists as the singular entity to represent the interests of those writing for the screen, for television, and for select broadcast news entities based in the East. […] As someone who has studied labor history, I am aware that the AFL-CIO secured its future by organizing on the basis of individual guilds, rather than the failed I.W.W. model of organizing any and all workers under the same flag.

And here I was thinking that The Wire season two’s fictional dying union local, the “International Brotherhood of Stevedores” (a thinly veiled stand-in for the real life International Longshoremen’s Association) was the bad example — racist, dead-end, craft unionism.

In his study of labor history, David Simon may have missed the alternative, a union like the IWW’s Local 8 Philadelphia dockworkers, perhaps the most powerful industrial union ever to exist on the east coast docks. The union was built on the principle of racial inclusion, long before such an idea was adopted by the mainstream labor movement, and had to fight against the segregated, lily-white, craft unionist ILA. Local 8 won raises, better working conditions, integrated work crews, and a union hiring hall, all through airtight solidarity and crippling job actions. The Local came to an end, not because they tried to organize “any and all” workers under one banner, as Simon asserts, but due to a collaboration between the state, the shipping companies, and the ILA itself, because Local 8’s industrial organizing had been too successful. Bad unions winning out over good unions is not proof of concept for bad unionism.

This odd reading of history from one of the foremost voices in the industry, both creatively, and as a union leader, was a wake-up call for me that the tendency towards craft divisions that keep us separate and competing for the biggest share of the studios’ crumbs is very much alive and well. It is the opposite of the direction we need to go. The Netflixes and Amazons of the world are not just trying to break the backs of IATSE workers on set. Eventually they will be coming for all of us, and as the streaming wars start to consolidate, they will be more and more united. Will we who do the work be able to say the same?

We need unions whose strike threats aren’t simply negotiation tactics. We need rank-and-file control and bottom-up democracy. But we also need real strategies for meaningful organizational connections across union jurisdictional lines, and contract expiration dates that are lined up so we can strike together, instead of cheering our union siblings on from the wrong side of the picket line while we work to keep different phases of production alive for the studios’ benefit. We need One Big Union-Hollywood. As always, there is much to be done.

MK Lees is a screenwriter and Captain with the Writers Guild of America West and an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World.