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Hollywood Could Be Surprised by a Massive Strike. Here Are Five Reasons Why

IATSE is a large collection of locals that are hard to organize, making a strike unlikely, but there are reasons the union considered to be toothless is finding its bite.

IATSE

With less than a week left before IATSE’s current contract expires, negotiations between the West Coast membership of IATSE and the AMPTP resumed Tuesday. On the surface, this shouldn’t be cause for concern: Hollywood shows few outward signs of bracing for a strike. TV shows aren’t discussing contingency plans, and AMPTP producers have confidence that the sticking points will be ironed out. Most of all, industry veterans dismiss the idea that IATSE, which represents the vast majority of production crew, would ever strike.

However, while history may not point to a work stoppage, there are five very good reasons why those assumptions are starting to crack.

Cathy Repola’s Leadership

Two weeks ago, Cathy Repola, executive director of Motion Picture Editors Guild (Local 700), sent a letter to members that laid it out: She believed that the need for a strike authorization vote was near. “I wish I could say I am hopeful we will reach an acceptable agreement,” she wrote, “but based on the direction this has been heading, I am skeptical at this time.” After her letter leaked to the press, the AMPTP might have hoped that the 700 was just a rogue local — nothing that could detail the talks.

However, on July 21 Local 700 took a sledgehammer to that assumption. Editors filled a 1,200-person banquet hall at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, with another 600-plus members packed into an overflow room, to watch their leadership describe negotiations as reaching an “existential crisis,” and proclaiming the vital need to speak with one voice in standing up for members’ benefits and work hours. According to Cinemontage, the house organ for the editors’ guild, Editors Guild president Alan Heim opened the meeting with his own proclamation: “Holy shit! I am so proud of this union!”

Marvel's Jessica Jones

Marvel’s Jessica Jones crew at work

David Giesbrecht/Netflix

This is exactly what the AMPTP didn’t want. Concerted efforts draw attention, and potentially the interest of 43,000 West Coast IATSE members — something that, in the past, seemed impossible. Unlike the DGA or the WGA, targeted unions that have seen strikes of their own, IATSE is lumbering and unfocused. It’s a collection of more than 375 locals in North America — many of which are outside film and television, and have no part in this — each with their own leadership and leadership style. Within film and TV, IATSE represents everyone from cinematographer Roger Deakins to the administrative staff in the production office to the prop masters on commercials. This makes strike authorization a challenging concept.

However, under Repola’s leadership Local 700 has begun to act more like the tight-knit crew of the WGA as she communicates the issues at stake. IndieWire talked to a handful of editors who hadn’t been particularly active in the union, but attended Saturday’s meeting. They emerged with specific knowledge of the issues and a firm belief firm that IATSE should not bend in these talks.

“Cathy did an incredible job [outlining] how producers’ proposals barely put a band-aid on a problem that is clearly going to get unsustainably worse,” said one Local 700 member. “I left there with a sense of solidarity I never had before and a real understanding of why we need to make a stand now, not with the next contract.”

A Simple Message

The issues under negotiation are extremely complicated and nuanced, and complexity is hard to turn into a rallying cry. However, IATSE has effectively framed an overarching concern: As the industry moves toward streaming, IATSE members are left out and at the expense of their pension and healthcare fund.

Unlike traditional TV and movies, streaming content has no financial second lives in DVD, cable, premium cable, and SVOD. No second life means no residuals, and that means funding for IATSE’s pension and healthcare has dipped to critical levels.

“One of the things that bugs me is the constant use of the term ‘new media,’” wrote one IATSE member in an email to IndieWire. “There’s no such thing as ‘new media,’ it’s just ‘media.’ It was coined by the powers that be as a way to avoid paying the content creators; ‘We can’t offer you guys residuals because we don’t know where this new media is headed.’”

STS2_205_JLD_0224_0484.cr2Late Night shoot on "Stranger Things"

Late-night shoot on “Stranger Things”

Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix

Seeing where “new media” is headed is something IATSE members clearly understand. Not only do they watch Netflix Originals at home, a growing percentage now work on original streaming content. They know Netflix spends billions and have seen the announcements of top showrunners taking nine-figure deals, while Apple and AT&T prepare to make their own heavy investments to compete. Meanwhile, Amazon is run by the newly minted richest man in the world, Disney and CBS are preparing to make massive steps into the subscription video space, and Rupert Murdoch is selling Fox because he doesn’t believe he can compete with the streamers.

With an underlying message that the crew is being cut out of this shifting business, endangering its healthcare and pension benefits, IATSE has a piercing narrative that creates a sense of urgency.

Social Media

When the WGA went on strike in 2007, Twitter had just started offering hashtags. More than a decade later, even the cacophony of the IATSE locals has unified with a strong social media presence. Private social media groups have become an extremely effective way to spread the word surrounding key issues.

Many locals now have robust, year-round Facebook pages that provide the communication and a sense of community that was once impossible. The Editors Guild Facebook discussion group I Am The Union has more than 3,000 members. The 2018 IATSE Contract Forum Facebook page has nearly 9,000 members. Meanwhile, an online petition outlining IATSE’s basic demands and pledging to stand behind IATSE leadership is rapidly gathering signatures while also serving to inform unengaged members of the issues under negotiation.

Long Hours Are an Emotional Issue

Marvel's Jessica Jones

Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” crew

David Giesbrecht/Netflix

In conversations with IndieWire, a dozen veteran IATSE members stated unequivocally that work hours have gotten dramatically worse in recent years, with the pressure to move quicker and get more done in fewer work days becoming an industry trend that is taking its toll.

“It’s gotten so much worse in the last decade or so,” said one 35-year veteran and noted department head. “Everything is about doing more with less, including money, which means less days and more hours. I’ve gotten to the point I turn down work — which I’m lucky to be in a point in my career that I can —– because there’s people I know I don’t want to work with. Not creatively, but because they’ll push it beyond what any union member should be giving of themselves.”

The rules surrounding turnaround — the mandatory time crew has between wrap and the next day’s call time — vary between the locals and the size of the production, but IATSE is fighting to ensure an across-the-board, 10-hour rest period.

“In LA, we often have jobs on the other side of town from where we live,” said one Local 700 member. “It’s miserable to leave work late knowing I have to cross town twice and be back in eight hours. A 10-hour turnaround would dramatically change the quality of my life.”

The AMPTP agrees changes need to be made, but doesn’t necessarily seem interested in shortening work hours or extending turnaround. Instead, they’ve suggested that productions be required to offer hotels and car services (something many already do), and instead of offering meal breaks instituting “French hours,” in which food is available all day and the crew works continuously.

Unions are well aware that squeezing more out of a work day means fewer days, and one less shoot day can be a six-figure savings. More importantly, these counterproposals have already failed if the AMPTP hoped IATSE would remain disengaged. Extended hours are more than punching a time clock; relentless work hours are emotionally grinding and dangerous, and IATSE has seen multiple driving accidents after members drove home after long shifts.

According to Cinemontage, a private Facebook page includes a photomontage of six union workers who fell asleep at the wheel and died driving home after a long shift. While Repola reportedly drew a rousing standing ovation on Saturday night when she said, “You guys need personal and family time.”

The Imaginary Residuals

Behind the scenes of Netflix's "Godless"

Behind the scenes of Netflix’s “Godless”

Ursula Coyote/Netflix

The problem of residuals lacks an easy fix. When a show like USA’s “Mr. Robot” sold its SVOD rights to Amazon Prime, the transaction came with a set dollar amount; within that, there’s a predetermined residual union payout. Streaming has none of those certainties, and in negotiations with the DGA and WGA the AMPTP attempted to address the issue with an “imaginary” residual associated with international streaming. Of course, a Netflix Original show like “Dear White People” didn’t sell any international rights; it appears on Netflix in foreign countries. Further complicating matters is the AMPTP believes this so-called international residual doesn’t apply to IATSE.

Meanwhile, the AMPTP believes the five major studios have paid more than their fair share in recent IATSE contracts and is trying to pull back a 10 percent pension increase that IATSE won in the previous negotiations; AMPTP argues that the burden of that pension bump should be borne by “smaller” producing entities, rather than the top ten to twenty producing entities in the AMPTP behind a large percentage of Film and TV production.

Herein lies what might be the most difficult aspect of these talks: In the convoluted media landscape of 2018, does the AMPTP speak with a unified voice for the producers behind Hollywood’s content creation, or for the vested interests of the five studios that are fighting their own existential battle with streaming?

IndieWire has asked repeatedly, both on the record and off, how the interests of Netflix, Amazon and Apple – which aren’t AMPTP members – are being represented in these talks and has yet to receive a clear answer.In the past, however, they have followed the terms negotiated.

What A Strike Might Look Like

Currently under negotiation is the contract for West Coast IATSE members, but locals 700 and 600 (cinematographers) are national unions that cover nearly 16,000 members. The East Coast wing of IATSE, facing similar issues in their upcoming negotiations, would be unlikely to cross picket lines if editors and cinematographers strike (as if it would matter, since you can’t make a show without those technicians).

IndieWire can report that at a recent meeting of Teamsters Local 399 the suggestion of supporting a possible IATSE strike received a standing ovation. Meanwhile DGA members, who are often forced to make impossible decisions about keeping crews late, have long argued that it is time for studios to set clear and human working guidelines.

Since the AMPTP may not believe IATSE would strike, it’s unclear if they have wholly considered the potential optics. Everyone acknowledges that crews are overworked and under appreciated; lining up against that would not be a good look. And when the issue is framed as all-powerful tech companies spending billions to build a streaming future that won’t fully fund crew benefits or maintain a humane workday, the AMPTP will likely be unable to control the narrative.

Getting tens of thousands of IATSE employees unified to make a stand remains a serious barrier, and points to there not being a strike — but what has long been considered a toothless union is finding its bite.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated IATSE has never striked. In its 125 year history IATSE has striked countless times and even in recent years individual locals have made the ultimate stand. This is especially true when looking beyond the locals representing TV/Film crew. In regards to this particular collection of locals that make up a bulk of the production crew, in the modern era IATSE has not staged a collective work stoppage and contract negotiations rarely are pushed to the deadline. It is also important to note, that while the current negotiations discussed in this article are focused on the basic benefits being collectively negotiated for these 13 west coast locals, each of those locals has its own individual contract  that is tailored to the specific jobs of its members.

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