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When the industry came together last fall on a hard-fought agreement among multiple unions and the major studios on COVID safety protocols for production, some executives were wary of the precedent set by new limits on working hours.

Turns out, they were right to fret. The COVID safety protocols implemented in the fall of 2020 have been a big factor in fueling the push for better working conditions that has led 60,000 members of 36 IATSE locals and the major studios to the brink of a strike this month.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are scheduled to resume contract talks on Monday morning. The stakes are heightened after IATSE president Matthew Loeb warned on Friday that the union’s patience for the talks was running out. The sides held what was described as a long session on Saturday that included new proposals from IATSE that will be addressed by the AMPTP this week. “Slow and steady” was how one knowledgeable source close to the situation described the tenor of Saturday’s session. “Passions are high,” said another.

The scheduling and shooting protocols required for COVID safety during the past year have been fueling IATSE’s demands, in more ways than one.

To adjust to pandemic-era limits, producers in many cases focused on maximum efficiency in scheduling for actors. For camera crews, that meant in many cases producers opted to pay modest penalties built into the contract for when crew members missed a designated meal break period. And because COVID protocols demand that no food be brought around shooting locations, many camera teams have logged long work days without eating at all. Anger over this situation and other unintended consequences of safety protocols are animating the bargaining negotiations that were held in virtual form for most of last week.

IATSE Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild, has been a power center within the larger union for 20-plus years. It represents directors of photography, camera operators and assistants, visual effects supervisors, still photographers and publicists across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The local with national reach was created in 1996 through the merger of existing camera locals serving New York, Chicago and 13 Western states.

Industry sources say Local 600’s leaders are the loudest voices in Loeb’s ear, particularly the camera operators who are driving the terms of the hours and working conditions that the negotiations team is pressing. Local 600 has 9,677 members, according to its latest filing with the Department of Labor, making it the largest of the 36 locals.

A willingness to blow through crew meal breaks isn’t entirely a COVID phenomenon. In the Peak TV moment, with many creative pros working back-to-back shoots on tight schedules, the willingness to push through to get it done at all cost is coming at a cost. The forced pause prompted by the pandemic allowed union members the chance to rediscover weekends and family dinners.

The flare-up of tensions in IATSE’s contract talks over the past few weeks has caught many Hollywood labor watchers by surprise — which IATSE members see as another sign that the industry takes this class of workers for granted.

Taking the step of getting a strike authorization vote got people’s attention. Now, the AMPTP has little choice but to make meaningful concessions on hours and working conditions to show respect to these essential Hollywood frontline workers. Even the consideration of going on strike is different, considering the balance of membership in SAG-AFTRA, WGA and, to a lesser extent, the DGA. A high volume of IATSE members are working at any given time, unlike the other guilds. Today, most of IATSE’s members have active paychecks on the line if a work stoppage were to ensue.

According to multiple sources, the basic economic terms of the minimum basic agreement are not in dispute. The studios have made a significant offer to help shore up IATSE’s pension and health fund, and they’ve agreed to enshrine a 10-hour turnaround as downtime between days worked.

But there are other issues on the table — dedicated weekend hours, rest periods, the arcane new media discount and, yes, meal breaks that need to be given more respect than a negligible penalty fee that is easy to pay and ignore.

Hollywood CEOs are understandably antsy these days about changing business models at a time when the largest employers are plowing billions of dollars to invest in new streaming platforms. There’s frustration at the studio level that the PR battle over union contracts is framed in terms of people vs. studio profits at a time when traditional giants are absorbing billions of dollars in short-term losses to build new businesses a la Disney Plus, HBO Max, Peacock and Paramount Plus.

But industry veterans have seen this play out before. CEOs talking about red ink is just a big red flag — remember the dynamic in the fall of 2007 when executive obstinance pushed the WGA into a corner, leading to the 100-day strike. AMPTP President Carol Lombardini needs to find a way to hand Loeb some clear wins to keep the angriest voices in the room from rising to militancy. In this environment, it’s hard to understand the AMPTP’s decision to not make a counteroffer to IATSE’s Sept. 12 contract proposal.

A month later, after IATSE held a strike authorization vote that was predictably strong, the X-factor is emotion and whether “somebody does something stupid” in the next 72 hours to inflame the situation, in the view of a veteran studio executive with deep union connections.

The CEOs of the conglomerates that drive the AMPTP are starting to realize that the IATSE deal and the 2023 cycle of contract talks with WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA are going to be “very expensive,” said the source. And all of these labor pains come at a time when Hollywood’s top leaders have limited experience in dealing with creative community labor unions.

What happens over the next few days in the IATSE talks will set the tone for the rest of 2023 contract negotiations. AMPTP negotiators would do well to recognize the underlying motivation for the union that represents Hollywood’s essential workers. This time around, the demand that IATSE is pushing hardest for is respect.