As contract negotiations stall between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, crew members have taken to social media to share their support for a possible strike action and for the terms that IATSE is demanding in the next deal.
Health plan funding, pension plans, rest breaks, longer turnaround times between production hours and concessions to shorten the workday are among the agenda items that IATSE are seeking for union members.
Charlese Antoinette Jones, who counts “Raising Dion” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” among her costume design credits, says the biggest issue for her is pay equity. It was only in 2019 on “Raising Dion” that she started making scale.
“I didn’t get per diem sometimes on out-of-town jobs. I found out white production designers were getting per diem and I wasn’t,” she says. “That’s the racial implications of it, but I’ve talked to other women in the industry, and we’re all struggling with similar things.”
She explains her work-life balance is almost non-existent when she is on a job, missing birthdays, weddings and funerals. And often those 16-18 hour days mean she will find herself having “one day off in three to four week spans.”
For script coordinator Shawn Waugh, who worked on “Fear the Walking Dead,” his long hours often find him working late at night due to the nature of his work. “It’s not uncommon for me to start distributing material after 11 p.m., or midnight, and then to need to be awake and ready for not just the writer’s room,” he says. “There’s an extended 12-plus hour day.”
Waugh and Antoinette Jones are just two of the 60,000-plus crew members covered by the locals who are advocating for better conditions and better hours among other things. “We need to be paid time off,” says Antoinette Jones.
Waugh also describes the pressure of the job as always being on standby which bleeds into his personal life. “You’re expected to immediately drop everything and begin working. It’s a lot of pressure because you could have hundreds of people waiting for you to distribute a draft or revision,” Waugh says. He reveals that during one job he had to step out of a funeral to address a script issue “because the showrunner needed it done ASAP and hadn’t given me any advanced warning.”
Antoinette Jones also reveals she has missed important doctor’s appointments because of work commitments. But a turning point for her was last year during the pandemic when she was about to start working again and had a health scare. This time around, she put herself first. “But there are projects where people get upset if you go to a doctor’s appointment. This industry does not encourage rest and time off. It’s a culture of being workaholics,” she says.
Courtney Hoffman, a former costume designer and former member of Local 705 and 892 who has worked on “Baby Driver” and “The Hateful Eight,” recently made a career switch, moving into writing and directing. Standing in full support of IATSE strike action, Hoffman recalls witnessing dire set conditions, “After working on sets I have seen crew abused emotionally and physically, put in dangerous locations and situations. On more than one film crew members or department heads have been seriously injured or died and we broke for five minutes to announce it and then continue on.”
Crew members across the board are advocating for better hours and better quality of life. The pandemic has been the reason for that shift. Notes Hoffman, “I knew the pandemic would bring about this change because it was the first time so many crew members have seen their kids grow up, tuck them into bed and kiss their wives in the morning.”
After her troubling experiences on set, Hoffman is working to create healthier workplace environments and address the issues of brutally long hours that have plagued crew members for decades. “One of my biggest motivations in becoming a director was to create a new culture on sets. One where women could feel safe. One that valued human lives over the perfect take. One that invited families to lunch. Things that remind crew they’re valued and safe at work,” Hoffman says.
Salvador Perez, president of the Costume Designers Guild, noted that there are examples of major employers doing the right thing by their crews.
“When I work at Universal they have a policy that no one works over 14 hours, so they would allow us to bring in extra crew to finish the day so no one worked abusive hours,” he says. “Why is that not industry standard?”
He adds the entertainment industry is one of the few where the crew work such hours. With the TV season changing from July through April to almost year-round, he has noticed unsafe working hours as costume designers and other crew members are working in high-pressure situations nearly 12 months a year.
“We are expected to do it for months, there is no logical reason to work the crews to death,” Perez says. “Why do studios insist on working 16-18 hour days? Isn’t it more cost-effective to work 12-hour days and add a day or two to the schedule?”
Perez and others feel that the AMPTP member companies are pushing so hard that workers may have no choice but to support a work stoppage to make their case.
“The studios don’t seem to care, so they are forcing us to strike to show we are fed up with the abusive hours,” he says. “We are the lifeblood of the film and TV industry, we should be treated as partners, not as workers.”