On the 4th of October 2021, the US International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) made history, as the TV & Film Production division voted overwhelmingly to authorise strike action for the first time in the union’s 128-year history. With a turnout of 89.66%, 53,411 workers voted on the motion, with a yes vote of 52,706 – meaning a yes vote of 98.68%.
IATSE is a historically strong union, covering theatre, film, and television production staff – electricians, carpenters, riggers, welders, stagehands, and more. Thanks to the union, my American counterparts have strong job protections, including minimum crew calls that prevent producers from saving money by cutting staff from productions below a minimum safe level. Producers generally work with IATSE because of its high density of membership and the threat of losing an expensive production to industrial action, but in the most recent round of negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP)
announced that it does not intend to continue negotiations for a new agreement to replace the Producer-IATSE Basic Agreement. IATSE alleges that the AMPTP has failed to work with the union on addressing unsafe and harmful working hours, low wages, failure by productions to provide reasonable rest during meal breaks and between workdays, and the continued downward pressure on wages due to streaming media.
Perhaps the key demand being made relates to long hours. IATSE members report sleeping in their cars in between 16-hour days of filming because they fear road accidents due to exhaustion – rightfully so, as in the last year two IATSE members sadly lost their lives in exactly these conditions, driving home late at night exhausted from successive production days. After a particularly tough two years thanks to covid, workers in the arts are returning to work with a new resolution to achieve what many of us have been agitating for since, it seems, time immemorial; a better work-life balance and a more equitable deal. The key demands of a 10-hour overnight break (even under the EU working time directive, workers are guaranteed an 11-hour overnight break), a 54-hour turnaround on weekends (which would mean if you finished at midnight on a Friday night, you would not be on shift again until at least 6am Monday morning), and increased penalties for missed meal breaks, in an attempt to reduce the frequency with which lunch and dinner breaks are missed due to production overruns.
If IATSE does formally call for a strike, this would be the first strike in the US film and television industry since the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, which lasted 14 weeks and saw international solidarity as unions around the world refused to provide alternative labour in support of the WGA picket. It is likely that if a strike were to materialise, producers would again attempt to continue production by hiring non-union labour to break the picket. I hope all of you will join me in wishing our comrades in IATSE a successful round of negotiations after this momentous vote, and in warning British producers (and American producers, such as Disney and Netflix, who film in the UK) that arts workers in Britain are paying close attention to this timely reminder of the old adage; there’s power in a union.
Photo credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times