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IATSE: Union Leaders Face Hard Questions and a Campaign To Kill the Tentative Agreement

The unorthodox labor negotiation enters a new chapter, with crew turning to Facebook instead of their locals for answers and an electoral college style vote that could wreak havoc.

Crew from Marvel’s “Jessica Jones”


When news came July 26 that the producers (AMPTP) and West Coast crew (IATSE) reached a tentative labor agreement, Hollywood breathed a sigh of relief. By the weekend, of the 13 locals represented in the IATSE-AMPTP negotiations, 12 informed their memberships that they would recommend ratification. IATSE locals traditionally vote in accordance with leadership recommendations, but something else happened this weekend: Union members began a grassroots Get Out the Vote campaign, with an eye toward killing the deal.

This effort traces back to the lone standout, Local 700 (the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild). Under Cathy Repola, the union’s executive national director, the leadership did something unheard of in modern labor negotiations of below-the-line crew: They organized and engaged its members, walked them through the negotiations, and framed the differences over work hours and benefits funding as being worthy of a labor stoppage.

The AMPTP and leadership of other locals don’t appreciate the effort, and are working to paint 700 as going rogue. “Los Angeles has 13 locals,” reads a letter from Local 705 (Motion Picture Costumers) to its members. “All but one local are supportive of this contract. That local is very visibly criticizing the new agreement. Please remember this new contract is heavily supported by all locals except one.”

Despite that cheerleading, leaders of the other 12 unions now face member pushback. That same letter from Local 705 describes one “union gain” as “Residuals from Streaming/New Media contributed to Pension Plan.” In an annotated counter, published on Facebook’s 2018 IATSE Contract Forum, an orange box next to this bullet point adds the following information: “Limited to features above $30 mill and longer than 96 mins. Less than rates granted to DGA, WGA, SAG-AFTRA.” Excluding streaming-only series like Netflix originals, a key element of IATSE’s conflict with the AMPTP, paints the “gain” in a completely different light.


And herein lies the nightmare scenario for leaders of the other 12 locals: Members are turning to Facebook, not to them, for information. The private 2018 IATSE Contract Facebook group has grown from approximately 3,000 members to about 13,000 members in a matter of weeks, with well over 500 members joining daily. To manage the growth, moderators from each of the 13 locals have been charged with approving entry.

This engaged Facebook group largely aligns with Local 700’s views (though notably moderating as it expands), but it is also a forum that favors detailed information and placing each negotiating point in full context. Based on multiple conversations with members, the forum fills an information vacuum left by their locals. This places the union leadership in the precarious position of facing hard questions they’re unaccustomed to answering, while increasing the power of the detail-oriented Repola to frame the conversation and extend the education she’s brought to members of Local 700.

The hardest question: Exactly which concessions did IATSE gain in the third round of talks, after walking away from the negotiating table in early July? Some IATSE members are accusing their leaders of folding and never threatening a strike that might move the AMPTP off its firm negotiating position.

Meanwhile, some locals’ leadership have instructed members not to discuss the terms of their specific AMPTP agreement with other locals. Many members are ignoring that concept, both online and at meet-ups, as they not only compare notes, but also try to understand how the deal affects members working in different locals and in different formats (network, streaming, broadcast) in significantly different ways.

Marvel's Jessica Jones

The IATSE crew on Marvel’s “Jessica Jones”

David Giesbrecht/Netflix

Agreement ratification is an extended process, which doesn’t favor any local that hopes to thwart the Get Out the Vote effort. The memorandum of agreement, reflecting the new aspects of the existing contract, still needs to be written, with hard copies mailed to all 43,000 IATSE members represented in the talks. Members then mail back a paper ballot with a “yes” or “no.”

Union voting is not a simple majority of the total membership. Instead, it’s more like the electoral college: Each local has a specific number of votes based on the size of its membership; all of those votes are then allocated based on the simple majority of the local membership.

The magic number for a “yes” or “no” is 191 votes. Many speculate that members of Local 700 (73 votes) could join forces with members of Local 600 (76 votes), who were vocal about the issues surrounding shorter work days and longer turnaround. If that were the case, only one (perhaps Local 44, with 56 votes) or two other locals would be needed to stop ratification.

A number of engaged IATSE members express fear of a strike, pointing to the long-term effects of the WGA strike in 2008-09. And unions that view its leadership as weak might be wary of playing a high-stakes game of chicken with the producers. It’s a drama that will play out over the next few weeks, but one thing is almost certain: There is a core, and growing, part of IATSE that is becoming engaged for the first time. The leadership’s hope for a quiet show of hands looks less likely than it did a month ago.

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