For nearly 15 years, Heather Fink has made her living on movie and television sets. She mixes sound, and occasionally writes screenplays and directs. It’s what she loves to do. But Fink has also grown upset over the long hours that she and other crew members are being asked to work in order to get shows and films completed on time and on budget. That frustration has left her not only willing, but ready to go on strike.
“We’ve never had this much momentum and unity, so we cannot settle for anything less than meaningful change with a contract that will protect generations to come,” says Fink. “We need this contract to change the way we live.”
On Thursday morning the possibility that Fink and her fellow union members will soon be hitting the picket line moved a step closer to reality. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which numbers some 60,000 members, ranging from grips to gaffers to editors and costume designers, placed pressure on the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers by setting a strike date of Monday Oct. 18, 12:01 a.m. PDT. Unless an agreement is reached, there will be a nationwide strike against the major studios, which will have devastating economic consequences. It will result in productions across the U.S. being shut down. That means no paychecks for Fink and her fellow crew members.
Brittny Chapman, a costume designer, has been preparing for a possible shutdown. Because workers on strike cannot collect unemployment benefits in certain states such as California, Chapman has been saving up money. She’s built enough of a nest egg to sustain herself for at least three months. She doesn’t rule out friends and family supporting her, but she also would be open to getting another job. “Maybe somewhere else in another industry,” says Chapman, depending on how long any strike lasts.
Like Chapman, Zack Arnold, an editor and associate producer, has doubled down on building a financial safety net that would cover him for months if a strike drags on.
“I fear this will be a prolonged strike and will severely affect many of those who live paycheck to paycheck,” says Arnold. “This is why I think it’s imperative some form of strike fund is set up not just for union members but also those non-union crew members directly affected by the work stoppage.”
Each union made sure crew members were made aware that they wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment during a strike in some states, such as California. Fink says, “I have greater concerns for those in worse positions. I also believe we’ll have each others’ backs with a strike fund to help those in need. But I also believe this industry can’t survive an IATSE strike as it’s never happened like this in history. It would be reckless of AMPTP to allow an IATSE strike to last long and it’s in their power to prevent that with a meaningfully progressive contract. Asking for humanity and generosity from AMPTP shouldn’t be something we look at as extreme, but as essential.”
To the outside world, Hollywood seems to revolve around an endless stream of glamorous red carpet premieres and glossy parties and events. But there’s another side to the business. The Hollywood stars that grace magazine covers and enjoy top billing on marquees are the public face of an industry that runs on the labor of tens of thousands of blue collar workers. Their hours are long, their jobs hard and they will never be household names. However, the work they do is not only skilled, it can earn people a decent living. It’s not uncommon for union members to earn $3,000 to $5,000 a week, which can equate to a six-figure salary with benefits. But the pandemic has changed the calculus for some crew members, who no longer believe that even a certain level of income justifies the brutal hours and punishing conditions that they are required to work.
“I’ve been saying for years this is much bigger than just a union issue, it’s a human issue,” says Arnold. “We all need to support each other through this if we expect a paradigm shift in how we work in this industry going forwards.”
While Marisa Shipley, a set decorator coordinator on “Grace and Frankie,” admits she feels anxious about the looming strike because negotiations have been happening for months, the support from fellow crew members gives her hope. Shipley says, “I feel inspired and really proud of my union and the other members for really standing strong together and sticking up for what is right.”
While no public information has been released about where picket lines will be held, crew members are actively preparing. Last weekend, members got together to make signs in anticipation of a strike date being set.
“My phone blew up with text messages from crew friends immediately after news got out about the strike date being set,” Fink says. “Regardless of sacrifice, everyone is ready to strike and wow are we coming at this from our hearts. It’s been emotionally overwhelming to take stock of everything we’ve been through working on film sets over the years, our sacrifice and physical pain. The life sacrifices I’ve made, the medical conditions I suffer from being on set, along with the absolute disrespect shown to below-the-line workers, we’ll be bringing that with us to the picket lines.”