For the first time in the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) union’s 128 year history, 60,000 workers represented by the union came close to striking over grueling working conditions and inadequate pay. The union represents most of the film and television industry’s behind the scenes workers.
The union members authorized a strike with 89.66% turnout and 98.68% of those who cast ballots voting yes. The strike authorization vote came after negotiations with the organization representing the studios’ producers, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), broke down in September 2021.
The COVID pandemic, like with many other unions, has caused rank and file members of IATSE to reconsider their working conditions and demand better for themselves. Many workers shared their experiences on an Instagram account called @ia_stories. They’ve described working shifts as long as 14-18 hours, having very little time off, accidentally dozing off while driving home due to lack of sleep, short turnaround times between shifts, being forced to work through their lunch breaks, being paid low wages, and wage theft. In an industry that’s reliant on networking and relationship building, many workers were previously afraid to share their concerns about working conditions for fear of retaliation.
In the eleventh hour, IATSE began to finalize an agreement with the AMPTP to avoid a strike. The union is encouraging a yes vote on the agreement. But, many members feel that the proposed compromise agreement is insufficient, with some committing to vote no.
The current tentative agreement would institute 54-hour weekends, 10-hour turnarounds between shifts, 3% annual raises, and increased penalties for missed meal breaks. Voting for the agreement is expected to begin soon, whether or not it will be approved by the rank and file is still up in the air.
Amidst these circumstances, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed a cinematographer, Halyna Hutchins, and injured the director, Joel Souza, on the set of an independent film called Rust on October 21st.
Hours before, unionized camera crew workers walked off the set due to poor working conditions. The crew was forced to work long shifts, had to drive an hour to hotels or stay in run-down motels closer to the set, and were not receiving pay.
Additionally, they had also raised concerns about the safety of the prop guns used for filming prior to the fatal shooting. The assistant director on the film, Dave Halls, had previously been fired from the production of a different film called Freedom’s Path in 2019 over prop gun-safety issues.
The issues raised regarding the production of Rust underscore the concerns that IATSE members have been raising in the lead up to their potential strike. Overhauls in working conditions for film crews are long overdue and this tragedy makes that clearer than ever. As one of the most unionized industries in the nation, workers in film and television production wield immense power and influence that has previously been untapped. These workers should not have to devote their whole lives to their jobs and risk their safety to make a living. We can only hope that the IATSE rank and file will vote down their tentative agreement with the AMPTP so that they can achieve the substantive, lasting change in the film and TV industry that they desperately need and deserve.