‘We are not machines’: Hollywood workers poised to strike for better conditions

‘We are not machines’: Hollywood workers poised to strike for better conditions

Union leaders say a strike will start Monday if there is no deal with studios as workers describe low pay and grueling days without breaks

A banner hung in support of the the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) outside the Costume Designers Guild offices in Burbank, California.

Last modified on Fri 15 Oct 2021 12.55 EDT

At the start of the pandemic, Hollywood productions abruptly shut down, leaving many workers out of work before things began to resume with Covid-19 safety protocols in place.

Since then, workers in Hollywood say they have worked long schedules and endured increased workloads, including staggering work because of social distancing; wearing and distributing personal protective equipment through long work days; and regularly getting tested for Covid-19.

“We were working at breakneck speeds, and that was something that was supposed to have changed. We were supposed to have the time we needed to work in that kind of environment,” said Mike Loomer, a set dresser in Hollywood and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 44 member.

“The only thing that changed is what we had to endure to make the product that they had to have to get out for the public to see.”

Studios will again go quiet around the US as IATSE leaders say its 60,000 members will go on strike from 12.01 PT on Monday if a deal is not reached with employers. It would be the first such national strike since the IATSE was formed 128 years ago.

Members of the union include cinematographers, camera operators, set designers, carpenters, hair and makeup artists, animators and many other workers – and action would disrupt productions in major industry hubs from Los Angeles to Atlanta and New York.

Loomer said workers in Hollywood have dealt with the added stress of worrying about contracting Covid-19, and seeing production days increase from 12 hours to 14-hour and 16-hour days, working through meal breaks.Workers are leaving sets late Friday nights into early Saturday morning.

Union members say these grueling schedules have led to car accidents during work commutes and caused or worsened medical problems.

“That ramp-up in production just made the work and life situation unbearable. We can’t work at that feverish pace. We are not machines. We are people that need rest,” Loomer said. “Working in Hollywood is not just wrap parties and red-carpet events. It is a factory job, where we move the factory and set it up every day before we do our shift. The amount of physical labor that is required to make an hour of television … it’s unbelievable to the average person.”

Up to 60,000 members of the IATSE might go on strike in the coming weeks over long working hours, unsafe conditions, less pay from streaming companies and demand for better benefits.

Thousands of workers in the US film and TV industry are fighting to change these difficult schedules and improve wages and benefits in new union contract negotiations, as entertainment streaming services have ramped up production throughout the pandemic while reaping a surge in profits. Streaming services in the US reported a 32% increase in subscriptions last year, and the US home and entertainment market saw a $30bn rise in revenue in 2020, a 21% increase from 2019.

On 4 October, thousands of film and TV workers voted to authorize their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, to grant the IATSE president, Matthew Loeb, the authority to call a strike. Negotiations for a new three-year union contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) have been going on since May.

It would be the largest private sector strike since 74,000 General Motors workers went on strike in 2007. A work stoppage would shut down film and television production across the US.

Other Hollywood unions, including Sag-Aftra and the Writers Guild of America, several celebrity actors, and elected officials have publicly supported IATSE’s demands for a new, fair union contract in the wake of the strike authorization vote.

The threat of a strike among Hollywood workers and other large groups of workers around the US have inspired calls from labor unions to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the collective action and energy from these labor actions.

Some 53,411 workers cast ballots in the strike authorization vote, with 98.68% voting in favor. Thirty-six local unions participated in the vote, including 13 locals on the west coast and 26 locals in Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico and Louisiana, with all locals voting at least by 96% in favor of the strike authorization.

On Wednesday Loeb said the union will continue bargaining with producers on core issues, such as reasonable rest periods, meal breaks and a living wage for those on the bottom of the wage scale. “However, the pace of bargaining doesn’t reflect any sense of urgency,” Loeb said. “Without an end date, we could keep talking forever. Our members deserve to have their basic needs addressed now.”

The union prepared picket signs over the past weekend in anticipation of the strike.

According to union officials, some movement has been made in negotiations, with a strike action as the last option if they feel employers refuse to move further on contract priorities unless forced to do so.

Contract negotiations are ongoing, and though no details have been publicly announced, the industry and unions are bracing for a possible work stoppage if an agreement isn’t reached soon.

“The product that we’re making is much more valuable, but yet the contracts have not changed. If anything, they’ve gone in reverse, so our labor is worth more, but we’re not getting paid more, and that’s not fair,” said Victor Bouzi, a sound mixer and IATSE local 695 member in Hollywood.

He said that through the pandemic, he has been working so much that he often has nightmares about work. But film industry workers are standing up to these conditions as part of a broader labor movement fight against multibillion-dollar companies like Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Netflix, which are deeply embedded in the entertainment industry.

“The workers are getting squeezed more and more for their labor as the profits are getting higher,” added Bouzi. “That’s the cost. Our mental health to make this product that we’re not being fully compensated for, and people are starting to understand that.”

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