After months of negotiations and recriminations, it comes down to this: On September 4, IATSE president Matthew Loeb informed members that they would soon receive ballots to vote on ratification of the unions’ new basic agreement with producers (AMPTP). He also pointed them to a new website with “all the information” they would need to vote. In addition to presenting an impressive list of gains (9.3 percent wage increase, $153 million in new health benefit funding, no concessions), there were simple instructions of how to vote: 1. Ballot comes in mail. 2. Vote Yes. 3. Drop it back in any mailbox ASAP.
Not “Vote.” The only option proposed is Yes, as illustrated with the VOTE YES FOR BA 2018 logo that tops every page of the site. It’s the final step in IATSE’s coordinated 40-day campaign to show there is no justifiable opposition to the agreement, only those who act in their own self interest.
When Loeb and his local leadership victoriously announced a tentative agreement July 26, they didn’t expect to be in the position of vigorously defending it. IATSE is known as a diffuse union comprised of 13 locals that include a vast majority of Hollywood’s film and TV crew members; it isn’t terribly vocal or given to outbursts of solidarity.
However, a surge of member interest — and skepticism — took IATSE leadership by surprise; in turn, IATSE members were surprised when leaders responded by undermining their efforts to make a stand against the studios. Now, this negotiation has become about far more than the contract itself; it’s also about the self determination of a once-sleepy union.
The 2018 negotiations included a few key elements that made this year different. Funding of IATSE pensions dipped from 80 percent to 67 percent, growth of Netflix streaming-only content accelerated the unions’ already-declining residual income, and complaints regarding long work hours reached a breaking point. IATSE walked away from the negotiating table in early July, forcing a final round of talks at the end of the month just before the contract expired.
That’s when Cathy Repola, national executive director of the Motion Picture Editors Guild Local 700, did something unusual for IATSE: She engaged her 7,000-plus members with specifics on the gravity of these issues, where negotiations stood, and why they couldn’t wait until the next contract to tackle them. Education included videos, emails, and presentations, which culminated with a spirited July 21 gathering of close to 2,000 members.
Then social media kicked in with the 2018 IATSE Contract Forum, a private Facebook group that has grown to include more than 15,000 of Loeb’s 43,000 members. It’s a space where they can actively discuss and often criticize the agreement — and it’s not a place that makes IATSE leadership happy. Local 800 Executive Director Chuck Parker, who represents the art directors, instructed his members to delete any Facebook discussion posts that carry its message to his local’s “open” discussion of the new contract.
“What is at the bottom of this communication?” wrote Parker, outed by a screen shot shared by members frustrated by his attempts to stifle debate. “Please get rid of it immediately. Put it in the trash and delete the trash. I want NOTHING from that Facebook Group or Local 700 to infiltrate our communications. Please be vigilant. Thank you.”
IATSE leaders work to portray Repola as a Machiavellian rogue, but her straight-laced approach has more in common with that of a nerdy and patient high school teacher dedicated to educating her students with specifics. When other locals boasted of a “new media residual” for streaming-only content — the biggest issue under negotiation — Repola highlighted that it only applies to feature-length movies (96 minutes and up), with budgets over $30 million, and receive theatrical play. Within those narrow parameters, perhaps a half-dozen titles currently qualify each year out of the hundreds of films and TV shows produced by Netflix.
“We left the meeting that night ready to authorize a strike if necessary,” said one Local 700 editor to IndieWire. “There was a solidarity I’d never experienced. We wanted to let Cathy and the leadership know they had our backing if they had to walk away from the table again.”
This did not sit well with AMPTP and IATSE; the organizations were extremely confident an agreement would be reached, so Loeb and other leaders viewed any suggestion of a strike as way out of line. However, according to sources who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, key aspects of AMPTP’s proposal remained all but unchanged between the second and third round of negotiations, which took only two days to hammer out.
One thing that did change in the third round: Sources for both sides say that when they reconvened, Repola was iced out of the talks in retaliation for “going rogue.” For the members she represents, that gave credence to their belief that the negotiators punished Local 700 by cutting them out of the 10-hour turnaround requirement (the guaranteed minimum rest break between wrap and the next day’s call time). The other 12 unions got 10 hours in the deal, while editors went from eight hours to nine.
Nevertheless, the fire she lit under Local 700 spread across the membership into other locals on the private Facebook page, which saw its membership quadruple in a few weeks. Business agents representing individual locals in the negotiations found themselves facing well-attended town hall meetings where members drilled them on details. Local leaders who presented incomplete or too-rosy interpretations of the tentative agreement deal points were accused of lying.
Loeb and leaders of the other 12 locals — all full-throated in their recommendation that members vote to ratify the deal — reacted in anger, attacking Repola’s motives. This reached a boiling point at the August 6 IATSE general meeting in New York, where things got particularly ugly as Repola and Loeb debated the agreement. Afterward, sources said a “heated” Loeb called an “all-family” meeting with lawyers and staff who work directly for IATSE in which he speculated — and in language sources described as sexist — that Repola was motivated by a desire to “unseat” officers in other IATSE locals, including his presidency.
Local 700 lawyers sent a letter to Loeb August 8, accusing him of badmouthing Repola and spreading “untruths.” IATSE responded by sending its members a petition of “people in the room” that stated Loeb never said those things. However, the petition wasn’t signed by anyone in the room at the all-family meeting; all of the signatories were local leaders. When Local 700 pointed out the discrepancy, IATSE presented a curious rationale: The organization felt a Deadline article suggested Loeb said these things in the larger meeting, where the leaders were in attendance, and wanted to state that wasn’t the case. As for what might have been said in the closed-door meeting, there was no IATSE commentary.
Loeb then responded on August 9 with a letter to Repola, accusing her of “unlawfully” representing her union in negotiations because the Editors’ Guild didn’t elect her. It’s true that she was selected by the elected board of directors — but that’s the same system used by the DGA, WGA, SAG-AFTRA and other IATSE locals.
When IndieWire asked Loeb if he’d accused Repola of trying to unseat officers, Loeb declined to comment. He also declined to identify the federal labor law Repola might have violated in her union representation.
Loeb’s August 9 letter accused Repola of a “conflict of interest” and spreading “propaganda” that is “born of motivations beyond the interest of the membership,” while Loeb’s supporters backed whisper campaigns and sent emails. The message: Viewing the tentative agreement as a bad deal was a belief system that ranked somewhere below conspiracy theories.
Internally, some IATSE leaders have expressed frustration that Loeb hasn’t done more to “wrangle the cowboys” in the attacks on Repola. For members now interested in the contract itself, engaging them in a dialogue and leaning on an actuary report that projects IATSE benefit funding will be over 80 percent by 2025 would have gone much further to dull the fervor. Instead, attacks on Repola stoked the coals, leading members to question the validity of the actuary report itself.
“So what, we’re all just Cathy’s lemmings?,” said one non-700 IATSE member. “Every time they go after her 10 times harder than they ever stood up to the AMPTP, it just confirms our worst fears about leadership.”
Adds a local 700 member, “I was naive. I really thought once we got organized, Loeb would see us as an asset and know he could fight harder because we had his back. These last few weeks have been incredibly discouraging.”
IATSE crew on the set of “Godless”
For her part, Repola has avoided personal attacks. Asked if her local was denied the 10-hour turnaround as retaliation against her, Repola replied, “No comment, other than it is open to interpretation.” Privately, sources close to Repola and 700’s leadership say that it is not open for interpretation, but a mud fight would only help Loeb. After all, they argue, Repola’s supporters are the ones who are fired up and engaged, though the two-month break between the tentative agreement and the eventual vote has dampened that energy.
IATSE voter turnout is usually low. There’s no official tally, but multiple sources say the expectation is normally 15 percent-20 percent. Smart money has the agreement being ratified; members follow leadership’s recommendations, and others fear a strike that leadership opposes. Still, thousands of members are discussing the issues online, which makes it difficult to predict.
Even after the agreement is settled, IATSE will have to face another battle that could be much longer: reckoning with what its members expect from leadership going forward. As one member told IndieWire, “It is hard to imagine going to war with generals trying to suppress your rallying cry.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Chuck Parker as Chuck Peters.