Charley Gilleran has had a 30-year career as a rigging key grip, moving between superhero blockbusters like “Iron Man” and Oscar winners such as “No Country for Old Men.” This weekend, he plans to vote to ratify the new contract negotiated by his union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
The deal, announced on Oct. 16, averted what would have been the first national strike in the union’s 128-year history. Many members are against it, but Gilleran is voting yes because it protects the health and pension plans while providing a 54-hour rest period on weekends.
“I feel we negotiated in good faith, and we can’t keep going back and changing our minds,” he said. “I think our negotiating team did the best they could given the circumstances.”
But his 22-year-old daughter, Maeve Gilleran, is planning to vote no. She joined the union this year and thinks the negotiators should have done more to curtail brutally long hours on set.
“I’ve seen it affect my life a lot with my dad — seeing him work the hours he works,” she said. “I grew up with a dad who was never home. It definitely takes a toll.”
IATSE leadership has urged members to unite in support of the agreement, but the membership remains divided, partly along generational lines. Supporters say the deal makes progress on wages and working conditions without giving up ground on the union’s gold-plated benefits package. But for opponents, and for many younger members, in particular, the contract feels like a perpetuation of an unsustainable status quo, in which days stretch to 14 or 16 hours, making it impossible to have a life outside of work.
The union represents about 60,000 film and TV workers across the country — including hair stylists, set dressers, editors and boom operators. Ballots will go out electronically on Friday morning, and are due back by 8:59 p.m. PT on Sunday. The results will be announced on Monday.
Ratification votes are usually a formality. But the vote has become unusually contentious this year, amid a climate of heightened labor activism and in the wake of a strike authorization that passed with more than 98% support. Many members feel like their leaders failed to fully capitalize on the strike threat, and hope that rejecting the agreement will force the leadership to seek greater concessions.
“We revved everyone up, and they were willing to put it on the line,” said DeJon Ellis Jr., a business representative with IATSE Local 80. “It’s part of the great awakening of the American worker. They see the profits people are making in this industry, and our members feel they deserve more. I think it’s going to be a close tally.”
The union leadership has vowed that any shortcomings in the agreement can be addressed in the next round in 2024. The leadership has also warned that failing to ratify would only weaken the union and benefit the employers. A “no” vote would send the negotiations back to square one, and it’s quite possible that it would lead to a strike.
“It’s really messy, and it’s not without risk. But if not now, when?” said Marta Evry, a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, who said voting no is one of the few ways to register disapproval of Matt Loeb, the international president who led the bargaining committee. “We have no mechanism to recall him. The only pressure we can exert as a membership is to vote no and to say this is unacceptable.”
A lot of members are still undecided, even after participating in union-led town halls on Zoom. Rachel Widaman, an assistant property master in Local 44, said she had been “swayed from a hard no” after attending a meeting, but still needed more information.
“A lot of people are disappointed with what we ended up getting in this,” she said.
The mood on set has shifted from late September, when workers were vocal and united in support of the strike authorization. Now, the fervor has died down. And while a lot of members are vocally opposed to ratification on social media, others are expressing support.
Michael Piotrowski, a veteran sound mixer, said he will vote yes, and that most of the people he works with are also in favor. He said he does not have a problem with 10-hour “turnarounds” — the time off between shifts — and that the deal protects the health and pension plans.
“It’s a good deal for us,” he said. “I would have welcomed a strike if they didn’t come to an agreement. But I think the agreement they reached was something we can all work with and build for the future.”
Jim Plannette, an 81-year-old gaffer (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Ocean’s Eleven”), said he was “torn” about the vote, noting that rejecting the deal could easily lead to a work stoppage that would last through the holidays. A strike would not only end paychecks, but in most of the country, workers would not get unemployment.
“I don’t like the new contract,” he said, “but I’m not sure this is the time to have a strike.”
Plannette’s father also worked as gaffer, and he said he often tells younger people about the toll the industry takes on families.
“It’s a nightmare,” Plannette said. “You miss so many important things. You’re out of town. You’re working. You miss birthdays and graduations. I was once away for 26 weeks on a job.”
Scott Browner, a camera operator in Local 600, said he is leaning toward voting yes. He, too, was willing to strike, and he is not happy that productions have largely stopped breaking for meals. But he was also relieved that he wouldn’t have to go through a repeat of the 2007-08 strike, which cost him a lot of income.
“The younger people are much more militantly wanting to vote no,” he said. “They weren’t around in the writers’ strike, which was pretty rough.”
Ivan Migel and his son, Owen, are both in Local 80. Both are undecided.
“If I vote with my heart, then I’m voting no,” said Ivan Migel, who worked as a rigging grip on “Independence Day” and “Spider-Man.” “The producers pissed me off, and I like to stick it to them. … I just don’t know whether it’s the time to have everybody walk out again. I’m torn between the two.”
Owen Migel said he feels much the same.
“I see what my dad has dealt with in the industry,” he said. “There was weeks where I wouldn’t see him. That was normal. I didn’t really think about it until I started working as a grip. … I don’t know, it’s one of those things: Do we blow everything up or wait a few years and try to renegotiate? I’m still not really sure.”