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First Hollywood crew strike in 80 years looking increasingly possible

13 Sep 2021 9:43 AM | Amber Wakefield (Administrator)

Every three years the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE or IA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) renegotiate the Hollywood Basic Agreement - the core contract between the IA locals and the studios.

The IA serves as the parent labour organisation for the many smaller local unions in Hollywood and around the U.S. and Canada. These locals represent specific crafts within a designated geographic area. 2021 is a contract year and negotiations are no where near a resolution.

The previous contract between the AMPTP and the 13 Hollywood locals expired on 31 July with no agreement, but an extension to 10 September was granted to allow more negotiating time. 10 September has now come and gone with no agreement. The IA has been in frequent communication with members regarding the grim situation around bargaining, and the word “strike” has become increasingly common on both union forums and Hollywood publications in the past few weeks. The IA has advised its members to continue work as per the previous contract while bargaining continues. In the meantime, all the Hollywood locals are arranging town hall meetings with their membership over the next week.

The negotiations have thus far failed because the IA and its members are demanding substantial, systemic reforms to the industry regarding insufficient wages, unsafe working schedules, and sustainable benefits for members. The 1990s and early 2000s saw significant erosion in union benefits and working conditions, and now in the aftermath of working through the COVID-19 pandemic the membership is demanding reform. Among these reforms are a reduction of hours worked, guaranteed 10 hour turn arounds, and a restructuring of how productions contribute to the union’s healthcare and pension fund.

As we are all too familiar with in New Zealand, wages have not kept pace with the increases in cost of living. While current contracts have provisions for annual raises, they have barely kept pace with inflation. The IA is currently trying to tie wages to the current living wage in Los Angeles and base future raises from there. A recent press release by Local 871 in Los Angeles (script supervisors, coordinators, and accountants) details that some members are making approximately half of the current Los Angeles living wage. Unsuccessful calls for shorter working days began after the death of Focus Puller Brent Hershman in 1997 -who fell asleep while driving home after several consecutive 16 hour days. Six other IA members have suffered the same fate since then, and inspired Haskel Wexler’s documentary “Who Needs Sleep” in 2006. More recently, 13 top cinematographers including Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins penned an open letter to the studios advocating an hours reduction to the unsafe work schedules. Unfortunately, all of these cries over the last 25 years have fallen on deaf ears.

Union crews in the US also rely on the union for their health insurance and pensions, which are funded by contributions from the studios based on residuals. When productions intended for online streaming platforms began in earnest in the late 2000s, “New Media” contracts with lower rates and reduced benefit contributions were created to help grow the then nascent form of production. However, as the number of productions intended for streaming grows, the healthcare and pension fund has become unsustainable. The IA is looking to restructure contributions from streaming productions to the fund to make it sustainable again.

While in New Zealand we were virtually unaffected by COVID-19, crews in Hollywood worked through the pandemic as soon as it was possible. This included daily testing swabs, frequent stand downs due to cases onset, and the widespread introduction of “French” 10 hour days to U.S. sets for the first time. However, now that COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles are declining, the length of shoot days has returned to the usual 12.5 plus but without the return of lunch breaks.

Having had a brief glimpse of conditions we take for granted here in New Zealand, LA crews are gearing up to strike to improve their contracts. The 13 Hollywood locals (three of which are national: Camera, Editors, and Art Directors Guilds) are fully united for the first time and while a strike is looking increasingly possible, there is hope that a better contract can be struck. Closer to home, this should serve as both a cautionary tale to our New Zealand industry, and as a reason to appreciate the working conditions we have here.

You can read some related articles here:

Deadline "IATSE & Producers Set To Resume Contracts Talks Today"

Variety "IATSE And AMPTP Remain Very Far Apart in Contract Talks"

KCWR article "Hollywood sets: What it's like working 14-hour days, and whether a strike is coming'

Indie Wire "Emmanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins, and More DPs Urge Hollywood to Address Hazards of Long Workdays"

~ Michael Paletta, 1st AC

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