In 2015, IATSE International President Matthew Loeb went into the negotiating room determined to do something about long hours worked on productions. The issue has been a sore point among members for years, especially after there were car accidents caused by drowsy driving.
In the final hours of negotiating, Loeb made a fervent speech to his counterparts at the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
“I only wish every rank-and-file member could have witnessed his fire and passion,” Scott Bernard, the business representative of Local 695 reported afterward. And yet, Bernard said, “the employer refuses to bend.”
Loeb is once again enmeshed in negotiations with the AMPTP, and he is once again trying to make some progress on the issue. On Oct. 4, more than 52,000 IATSE members — almost 99% — voted to authorize a nationwide strike if the union’s demands are not met.
IATSE negotiations typically unfold without open conflict, so this is new territory for the 128-year-old union. According to many within the labor group, Loeb and the other union leaders are responding to increased insistence from the membership to succeed where previous negotiations failed.
“There is pressure from the rank-and-file up to the leaders, and the leaders have to listen,” says Cathy Repola, executive director of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.
Loeb, 56, got his start in the film business as a shop person in New York in the late 1980s, working on shows like “Law & Order.” He was a member of United Scenic Artists, Local 829, prior to its affiliation with IATSE. Loeb joined IATSE as an international representative in 1994, and steadily worked his way up the ranks. He was named international president in 2008, with a current salary of $490,000.
In contract negotiations, insiders say that Loeb has largely focused on shoring up the union’s Cadillac health and pension plans, and that “quality of life” issues like hours and rest periods have taken a back seat. The union has also been reluctant to wage public battles, preferring to maintain a more congenial relationship with the studios.
“We did not do a lot of big, big fights in the beginning,” says George Spiro Dibie, a former president of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600. “Now our laziness is catching up with us. We need to start fighting, start shouting.”
The union’s membership has been steadily growing over the past few decades, bucking the broader national trend, and adding to its clout. But in recent rounds of negotiation, IATSE has not always maintained a united front.
The 13 locals based on the West Coast bargain as a single unit. In 2018, conflict erupted among the locals over whether to ratify a new contract.
The Motion Picture Editors Guild, led by Repola, opposed ratification, arguing that its provisions were unfair to editors and did not extract enough concessions from the AMPTP. The debate was unusually ugly, with accusations flying in private Facebook groups.
Loeb reprimanded Repola, accused her of waging a “propaganda campaign” against the contract, and called her “selfish, divisive and irresponsible.” The editors’ guild’s attorney accused Loeb of ridiculing and threatening Repola at a meeting, and of doing so with “sexist undertones.” The other 12 locals voted to ratify the contract, over the editors’ objections, and Loeb removed Repola from her position on the pension board.
The union is less divided this time around, at least for now. Much of that is thanks to the pandemic, which helped galvanize support for shorter work hours. When production resumed in September 2020, days were initially limited to 10 hours — shockingly humane for an industry accustomed to 14- and 16-hour days. That showed producers could work on a less grueling schedule if forced to do so. But the shorter hours lasted only a month before the pre-pandemic schedules returned.
Another factor is the racial justice protests that followed George Floyd’s murder by police in May 2020. That led to renewed activism on diversity within the union — organizing that has translated to other issues.
“We’re just sick of the conditions we’ve been under, and it’s been progressively getting worse,” says Miranda Cristofani, a production designer. “People are exhausted. When you get enough people fed up, it’s easy to band together.”
One union representative, who asks not to be identified, says that the AMPTP did not take the unions seriously prior to the vote. Had they done so, the official says, the negotiations could have been done in June. The official says the 99% authorization vote proves to the AMPTP that the membership stands behind the union leaders.
“This is what we were hoping for,” the official says. “It was a shellacking. It sends an overwhelming, clear message that we are serious. We are solid.”
In an interview, Repola says that efforts by the AMPTP to pit one local against the other would not succeed.
“The members and the locals’ leaderships feel very passionately about the issues we are collectively fighting for,” she says. “Any attempt by the employers to conquer and divide has failed.”
But it’s easy to be united at the beginning of a fight. What’s unclear is what happens if further talks with the AMPTP fail to yield a satisfactory deal.
“They’re not going to strike over long hours,” predicts Gavin Koon, a former international representative of IATSE, who is critical of Loeb’s approach. “I’m concerned they’re not going to figure out where the deal is. You got ’em all fired up, but where’s the result? I’d feel more comfortable if there was some indication of an exit plan.”