As a strike authorization vote looms, some IATSE members have decided to cancel their streaming subscriptions in hopes of sending a message that would hit the studios in the pocketbook.
Workers in the below-the-line entertainment unions are gearing up to vote to authorize a strike this weekend, amid anger over long production hours without adequate break periods. The nascent campaign to cancel streaming subscriptions has spread online, but without the blessing or direction of union leadership.
“It’s purely grassroots, as a means of getting the attention of these streaming services,” said Terri Freedman, who works in craft services and is a member of IATSE Local 80. “The biggest place to affect a corporation is where their income lies.”
The move shows how the entertainment landscape has shifted, such that consumers now have a direct connection with the studios that make and distribute movies and shows, and an easy way to express their displeasure.
Kevin Lee Allen, a production designer from New Jersey, said he canceled his Netflix subscription last week, and included a note saying that he was doing so because he supports the union fight.
“I’m assuming somewhere along the way, some algorithm will pop up saying, ‘Hey, we’re losing business because of this,'” said Allen, a member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829. “I hope my friends who aren’t in the business do the same kind of thing, so it sends the economic message.”
Any economic effect on the streaming companies is likely to be relatively minimal, given their scale.
“Will this make them fall short of their quarter? No,” Freedman said. “But companies do respond to public pressure. They do respond to public movements… I’m hoping it has ripple effects.”
The role of streaming services — or “new media” — has been one of the sticking points in negotiations between the 13 West Coast IATSE unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
Under the current contract, streamers with fewer than 20 million subscribers pay lower wage rates than those that apply to movies and most linear TV productions. The major streamers — Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, Disney Plus — do not get a wage discount under that provision, but smaller services — including Apple TV Plus and Paramount Plus — pay the lower scale, according to union officials.
The discount was added to the IATSE contract a dozen years ago, when streaming was in its infancy. Now that the business has matured, the unions have come to view the provision as a loophole. Streamers also pay lower residual rates to the union pension and health plans.
“I think we should show that we are serious about this is by hitting them in those residuals that they refuse to give to us,” said Max Schwartz, a studio electrical lighting technician with IATSE Local 728, who has led calls for streaming cancelations on Facebook. “I think if this becomes a real push that the IA wants to take on, it could easily spread much larger than the membership itself.”
On social media, some have questioned the tactic, saying it would be better to wait until a strike actually begins, or until the union officially calls for the measure.
The strike authorization vote will begin on Friday, with the results to be announced on Oct. 4. Bargaining has ground to a halt, after the AMPTP did not respond to the union’s latest offer.
Schwartz said he is particularly angered about long hours without adequate breaks, but added that the discounted wage rates are also galling.
“We work literally the same job across multiple contracts for different rates,” Schwartz said. “‘New media’ has us as low as $15 an hour for the same job I would be paid $45 an hour for. That just doesn’t make sense.”
The AMPTP has said it is willing to improve minimum rates by 18% on the smaller streamers. IATSE is hoping to do better than that, or even eliminate the disparity entirely, though the latter appears to be a non-starter for the studios.
For many rank-and-file members, that issue is less pressing than doing something about turnaround times, “Fraturdays” — workdays that start on Friday and end on Saturday morning — and meal breaks.
Freedman said she had recently done a show with horrible hours, and found herself nearly nodding off on the way to and from work.
“It’s dangerous, it’s deadly, and it shouldn’t be allowed to persist,” she said. “It’s more than just about the wages. We’re really bargaining for time right now as well.”