A year after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the entertainment industry worldwide, the studios are churning out content at a breakneck pace. Workers are in high demand, and it has been hard for some shows to find enough grips and set decorators to keep up.
It’s somewhat strange, then, to think that it could all come to a screeching halt.
But this weekend, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees will hold a vote on whether to authorize a strike that would once again shut down the industry. The vote is expected to pass by an overwhelming margin, giving International President Matthew D. Loeb the power to call 60,000 workers off the job.
In some ways, the high demand for content has helped push the situation to the brink. Many production workers are feeling exhausted by long hours, but they also feel they finally have the leverage to do something about it. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has offered some tweaks to the schedule, but not the wholesale changes sought by union. Most observers still don’t expect a strike, which would be the first in IATSE’s history, but it is becoming a real possibility.
“A strike in my opinion, of any duration, would be devastating to both sides,” said Howard Fabrick, a veteran attorney who represented the studios in many labor negotiations. “I hope like hell they avoid it.”
Here’s a primer on the issues involved.
What do the unions want?
Though money is definitely part of it, the primary issues relate to workers’ quality of life. The industry has long expected workers to put in 14-hour days during production, if not longer. The shift to streaming and the explosion of demand has only sped up the pace. Before, workers might have expected weeks of downtime between shows. Now they can jump from one show to the next. Workers complain of exhaustion, and of being too tired to drive home safely.
The union is seeking a 10-hour minimum “turnaround” — the time between production days — for all workers on all types of productions. The union negotiators argue that workers need a minimum of eight hours at home, plus an hour each way to commute to set. Some classifications have that already, but others have only eight- or nine-hour turnarounds.
The unions are also seeking a minimum 54-hour turnaround on weekends. That would put an end to the dreaded “Fraturday” — a late-Friday shift that ends on Saturday morning. They also want to dramatically increase meal penalties, which are the payments that productions are obligated to provide if workers do not get a meal break. For many workers, a production will have to pay $8.50 for the first half-hour without a meal, $11 for the second half-hour, and then $13.50 for each half-hour after that. Those payments can work out to hundreds of extra dollars a week — though at the cost of having to eat standing up or skipping meals entirely. Unions have suggested increasing those payments as much as threefold, as a way of forcing studios to actually take the meal break, rather than just budgeting in the penalties.
Some of these provisions are already in place on other IATSE contracts, and the union argues that productions have found a way to make it work.
What are the studios willing to give?
The AMPTP has said it offered improved rest periods for certain types of workers on certain types of productions, including workers on TV shows in their first season, and for editors on several types of shows. They have not been open to jacking up meal penalties, in part because they believe the workers simply want to pocket the extra money. And they have not engaged with the union’s proposal to eliminate Fraturdays. They have suggested wider use of so-called “French hours,” in which crews can vote to forgo breaks and penalties in exchange for a shorter work day. The unions have been uninterested in that, noting that some workers are not able to eat while on set. They also argue that a shorter “camera day” — say, 10 hours — might still mean a longer work day for those who are not on set.
What about streaming services?
The unions are also looking to end a lower pay scale for small streaming services, including Apple TV Plus and Paramount Plus. Under an agreement reached in 2009, services with fewer than 20 million subscribers can pay lower wages to crews. This was intended to help grow the streaming industry, but now the unions say that streaming is clearly established and the discount has become an anachronism. The AMPTP is willing to increase wage rates for those streamers by 18% — but not all the way to parity. The unions also want the streamers to pay more residuals into the pension and health plans.
What happens if the strike vote passes? The unions go on strike?
Not yet. This could still be resolved without a strike, and likely will be, but expect things to get a little bumpy first. The authorization vote is expected to pass by an overwhelming margin. The idea is to show the AMPTP that the union’s strike threat is credible, adding to the union’s leverage. The two sides would then likely engage in further talks. Ultimately, Loeb and his team will have to decide if they have extracted enough concessions to make a credible case to the membership to ratify a new contract. If not, Loeb could order a strike. There would be no second vote — the authorization is the only vote that will be needed.
If they do go on strike, then everything shuts down?
Almost everything. There are three contracts in play — the Basic Agreement, the Area Standards Agreement and the Videotape Agreement. The Basic Agreement applies to the 13 “West Coast” IATSE locals, which represent about 47,000 workers. Three of those locals are nationwide: the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, the Motion Picture Editors Guild and the Art Directors Guild. The Area Standards Agreement covers another 15,000 to 20,000 workers at 23 locals around the country, including production hubs such as Georgia, Louisiana and New Mexico. Those workers are also voting on a strike authorization. The Videotape Agreement covers certain TV shows, like talk shows, reality shows, game shows, or “Dancing With the Stars.” The Basic Agreement and the Area Standards Agreement expired on Sept. 10, and the Videotape Agreement expires on Thursday night. All together, those contracts cover the vast majority of film and TV production across the country, and if a strike is called, all work covered under those contracts would cease.
There is an exception for HBO, Showtime, BET and Starz. In the mid-1990s, as HBO was first getting into self-produced scripted productions, their shoots were largely non-union. IATSE was able to negotiate a nationwide contract for HBO, separate from the Basic Agreement, with lower rates. The other premium cable outlets then signed similar agreements. Those agreements have since come into line with the pay scales of the Basic Agreement, but they have a different cycle, expiring on Dec. 31, 2022. Since those contracts will still be in force, those workers will not be on strike. The contracts do not cover every show on those networks — only productions made by the networks, or their affiliates, for “first exhibition” on those networks.
There are also separate contracts for commercials and for low-budget films (less than $15 million), which expire next year, and which would not be affected by a strike.
What about HBO Max?
This is one of the major questions IATSE members are asking their union officials, and they don’t have it quite nailed down yet. The unions are working on getting lists of which shows would and would not be affected by a strike, and members should check with their unions if they are not sure which contract they’re working under.
Are there other issues, aside from hours and streaming wages?
The IATSE pension and health plans are funded out of residual payments from the studios, but those residuals have fallen off as the industry shifts to streaming. According to the AMPTP, there is now a $400 million deficit in the plans, and the AMPTP has offered a proposal to cover the vast majority of that shortfall. Part of their proposed solution involves increasing the minimum hours required to qualify for the pension plan from 400 hours per year to 950 hours per year, though the union has resisted that. The health plan threshold — 400 hours every six months — would remain the same. For those who qualify, the health plan is quite generous, with zero premiums for the employee and very low premiums for family members.
Additionally, many members of Local 871 make just above the $14 minimum wage in California. Writers room assistants make as little as $16 an hour; assistant production office coordinators, $15.66; art department coordinators, $16.82; script coordinators, $17.64. The AMPTP has offered increases of 10% to 19% for those classifications, but IATSE is seeking a more substantial increase to reach a “livable wage.”