Quiet on the Set!

women holding IATSE picket signs

A Recent History of IATSE Basic Agreement Negotiations

By Aaron Hall for strikewave.com, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

On October 4th of this year, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE, also known as the IA) announced the results of the strike authorization vote taken among roughly 60,000 of its film industry workers in Hollywood and across the country. In a display of resolve and unity seldom seen among these members of IATSE across 36 locals, with nearly a 90% turnout, workers voted in favor of authorizing a strike by 98%.

Driving the vote was the fight against brutally long hours, lack of meaningful rest periods during and between shifts, low pay among the jobs historically done by and associated with women, and the refusal of studio bosses to adequately share the fruits of the workers’ own labor through residuals (payments for content that is licensed for use after its premiere showing or market which are deposited into the pension and health plans). In addition to the flurry of activity for months from rank-and-file members on the various IA Facebook groups, an indication of just how widespread and deeply the issues at stake have been felt was the viral explosion of the Instagram account, “ia_stories,” started by a former New York IATSE Local 52 film worker, initially attracting a thousand or so followers and swelling over the course of negotiations to the current 167,000 at the time of writing.

And yet now the march of a seemingly unstoppable movement of workers has hit its first rocky point. After taking the results of the strike authorization vote back to the bargaining table and bargaining for over a week while providing scant information about the negotiations beyond a set strike deadline of 12:01am on October 18th, the bargaining committee announced a tentative agreement on October 16th. Along with the announcement was a bullet-pointed summary that did not include the workplace changes for which members were ready to strike. Many voices on the Facebook groups expressed disappointment and anger while others decided to hold off judgment until more information was released.

While local and international representatives laud the agreements as the best they’ve ever seen, the membership remained divided as of the first day of the ratification vote on November 12th. Adding fuel to the fire of an initially amorphous but increasingly organized “no” sentiment was the tragic death of Halyna Hutchins, which underscored how much film workers’ working conditions have degraded over the years.

In articles like this one published leading up to the strike authorization vote, reporters repeatedly asked, “what has led to it”; the answer, not inaccurate, was always horrible working conditions. But none have asked, “what led to and created those working conditions?” To outsiders, and even to huge swathes of IA members themselves, it can be hard to make sense of how film workers got here. Communication internally is notoriously opaque, reserved for officers and international representatives, and the flow of information tends to trickle out at the pace of molasses in winter. Little is shared publicly that is not a press release or the words of an international or local officer, both sources requiring a level of interpretation best compared to reading tea leaves.

There is also little recorded history of rank-and-file activity, caucuses, organizing, or strikes that members can refer for understanding of their union, its lineage, or lessons from the past besides the sanitized, white-bread story provided by union leaders. Putting together a comprehensive picture of IATSE and the film industry is beyond the scope of this article, but we can start to understand how we arrived here by looking at the past thirty years of contract negotiations with the film industry bosses in the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and by scrutinizing the behavior and actions of the membership and local and international leadership during them. There are some easily accessible public records in industry rags like Variety, Deadline, and Hollywood Reporter as well as in the historically anti-union Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately, the articles printed are often vague or incomplete due to either the lack of information released by the union or a lack of in-depth reporting by these publications.

(Writer’s note: If you do see inaccurate or incomplete information, please get in touch with through this publication, ideally with citations so the record can be corrected.)

CONCESSIONS IN FULL BLOOM

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Hollywood film industry unionization rate was effectively 100%. In 1979, it was around 90%. By 1986, it was 60% and by 1989, 40%. While still impressive when compared with the unionization rate of other industries, this downward trend of unionization created significant pressures on IATSE. The union had already begun to give some substantial concessions in the 1979, 1982, and 1985 AMPTP negotiations on working conditions and job boundaries, but in the 1988 round of negotiations, the trend reached full bloom. Undergirding this era of employer attack and worker defeat were the large increases in profits, competition, and cutthroat management strategies spurred on by technological innovations in viewing and accessing entertainment (independent TV stations, video, cable TV, and pay-per-view TV) and the ending in 1985 of federal enforcement of the Supreme Court’s 1948 decision in U.S. v. Paramount which barred production companies from owning their own means of exhibiting their content.

Setting the stage for the defeat were two powerful events: the 1987 National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) strike and the 1988 lockout of the Hollywood Basic Crafts, a coalition of five unions (Teamsters Local 339, IBEW Local 40, LIUNA Local 724, UA Local 78, and Plasterers Local 755) whose representation of workers in the industry is a result from the earlier period of heavy inter-union jurisdictional warfare. In 1987, NBC demanded to use more part-time and freelance workers and allow reporters to handle equipment. NABET, who since the 1950s posed as an industrial union alternative to IATSE but who, owing to inter-union competition, mostly represented TV network workers as well as workers on commercials and low to medium budget films, objected. NBC implemented its last, best, and final offer, NABET went on strike for 18 weeks, and NBC effectively replaced the workers by training its clerical and administrative staff to use the production equipment with no noticeable effect on production. It was a complete loss for NABET, and CBS and ABC soon followed suit in their contracts.

The next year, in the summer of 1988, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike for 22 weeks over residuals and creative control. IATSE, instead of jointly bargaining with WGA to increase their own leverage by expanding the potential scope of the strike, postponed negotiations with the AMPTP for six months. In the meantime, the Basic Crafts, impatient with delays and having the view that the AMPTP would not want to further slow or stop production in the writers’ strike, decided to negotiate by itself with the AMPTP for the first time ever (and now a practice that remains, with the exception of 2012 when the Basic Crafts jointly negotiated with IATSE on pension and health insurance issues). In response, the AMPTP locked out the Basic Crafts for a month, hired scabs to keep productions going, and wrung out major concessions from the five unions, including reductions on meal penalties, the loss of Saturday and Sunday double-time pay, the loss of the Monday through Friday 5-day workweek, and the loss of night premiums for on-production workers and a reduction of them for off-production workers.

Rattled by the defeats of the Basic Crafts and NABET the year before, IATSE took up negotiations in January of 1989 agreeing to end double-time pay for Saturdays and Sundays, get rid of night premium wage differentials, and end the Monday through Friday 5-day workweek without even the threat of a strike. In exchange, IATSE members received a 3% annual raise and increased employer contributions to the health and pension plans. Announcing the tentative agreement, the heads of IATSE and the AMPTP at the time, Al Di Tolla and Nicolas Counter III, respectively, issued a joint statement calling the contract, “one of the most progressive labor contracts ever negotiated in the entertainment industry.” In a highly divided vote, membership voted against the contract in the popular vote by 49-51%, but with the delegate vote in favor 58-42%, the contract was ratified.

(If you’d like more information about either the NABET strike or the Basic Crafts lockout, the essays by Sarah Christopherson and John Amman respectively in Under the Stars: Essays on Labor Relations in Arts and Entertainment, eds. Lois S. Gray and Ronald L. Seeber from 1996 are an excellent resource and informed much of the writing of this section.)

THREE-PERCENT ANNUAL WAGE INCREASES

Over the next thirty years, IATSE focused primarily on wages and benefits in negotiations. Generally, each three-year contract brought with it a 3% annual wage increase as in the negotiations in 1993, 1999, 2008, 2015, and 2018. In 2002, the first year of the contract brought a $0.50/hr wage increase followed in year two with 2.5% increase and in year three with a 3% increase. 2005 had mostly 3% annual raises with the exception of the first year in which a $0.75/hr increase was accepted. In 2012, the union accepted a 2% annual wage increase and in 1996, no hard information on the contract was published.

Despite the overall trend of wage increases, sometimes there were cuts and freezes for certain positions and certain budgets of films as in 1999 where there was a $6/hr cut for 1st assistant camera positions and 2002 where there were both freezes for 1st and 2nd year episodic TV series, and wage cuts of an unspecified amount for single camera ½ hr episodic TV with budgets under $1.25m and single camera 1hr episodic TV with budgets under $1.85m. Given the lack of concrete information overall in the reporting on negotiations and contracts, one can assume that only the most impactful or controversial cuts (or information generally) gets covered and that those that affect a smaller, politically less important or less organized base slide under the reporting radar.

On the healthcare front, benefits were maintained but often with increased costs. Increases in employer contributions were won in negotiations in ‘93, ‘99, ‘02, ‘05, ‘08, ‘12, and ‘15, but some of these increases were less gains than simply existential preservation to keep the health plan from collapsing as in ‘93, ‘08, and ‘12, and in some instances, due to the vague wording of IATSE’s press releases, it’s hard to tell if the claimed contribution is for the health fund or the pension fund. There were also increases in co-pays in the ‘02 and ‘05 negotiations, while in ‘08, the number of hours worked in a 6 month period to be eligible for healthcare were increased 33% from 300 hours to 400 hours.

In 2012, the first ever health insurance premiums were implemented and directed towards workers with children or dependents and in 2015, the number of qualifying years of employment needed for retiree healthcare increased 33% from fifteen years of work up to twenty. The most recent negotiations in 2018 marked the splitting in employer healthcare contributions between the major studios and non-majors with a $0.40/hr increase over the life of the three-year contract for the former and $2.25/hr increase over the same period for the latter. On a whole, the only years in which there were no stated increased costs for workers were ‘96 and ‘99, and this is likely due more to lack of public information as very little was published on the negotiations and agreements for these years.

As for the pension, increases in employer contributions were won in ‘93, ‘99, ‘02, ‘05, ‘08, and ‘15 with no changes positive or negative recorded for ‘12 and ‘18 though as stated above, it’s hard to tell in lots of instances to which benefits fund the contribution was directed. In particular, the pension was shored up the most in 2008 and 2015 with annual increases in employer contributions of $0.35/hr and $0.18/hr respectively.

Even in its strongest win areas, all of this shows that the union has had difficulty in keeping its head above the water in maintaining wage and benefit standards. Despite the inability of these wages to keep track with inflation, the rising costs of healthcare, and the inadequacy of a pension alone on which to retire, this maintenance could be seen as wins to some and in a certain hazy light — for instance when compared to the decades long bottom-out fall of real wages and benefits of most of the working class — wins to others. However, the union’s record in improving conditions, let alone maintaining them, is unequivocal in its loss and it becomes apparent that as with the 1988 contract negotiations, the wage and benefit increases are earned at the expense of working conditions. 

WORKING CONDITIONS “TO BECOME MORE COMPETITIVE IN THE MARKETPLACE”

Continuing the erosion of working conditions in the wake of the 1989 contract, the double time payment of wages for hours worked on a shift in excess of 12 hours was weakened in 1993. Double time pay for hours remained the same for feature films — anything past 12 hours both on and off the clock during a shift — but for TV productions, it was lowered so that that pay, a disincentive to long hours, only was received after 12 hours total on the clock. In effect, this meant that for TV productions, meals off the clock were not counted towards the double time threshold so that workers did not receive double time pay until they had been at work for 12.5 hours, chipping away at the penalty for working the crew longer hours. In 1999, this erosion progressed with the end of double time and a half pay for hours worked on a shift in excess of 14. Worse, at some point, some productions, such as first seasons of series on basic cable, TV mini-series, and (until this past year) low-budget productions, were allowed to start paying double time only after 14 hours of work — a standard lower than California state law.

Additionally in 1993, IATSE accepted lower wages, less vacation and holiday, less overtime, lower transportation allowances, and more crossover between job classifications in a side letter for one hour episodic TV series, pilots, TV movies, and low budget features. This piecemeal attrition of working conditions through extensive and often arbitrary production classification by exhibition type (e.g. new media, network TV, or theatrical), type of production (e.g. game show, episodic series, or pilots), length of content (e.g. half hour or one hour), budget, and (most recently) number of subscribers in side letters and separate agreements would continue at full speed in the ‘90s with the “Low-Budget Theatrical Agreement” and side letters such as the “Long-Form Television Sideletter” and the elegantly worded, “Special Conditions for One-Half Hour and One-Hour Pilots and One-Hour Episodic Television Series (Other than Pilots or Series Made for Basic Cable).”

In 2005, the union agreed to decrease staffing minimums for camera workers, thereby intensifying work while decreasing the number of union jobs available. The agreement eliminated the requirement of having a camera operator on feature films and TV, allowing directors of photography to perform that work in addition to their already existing workload. In 2008, more job classifications, boundaries, and staffing minimums were scrapped for the newly-emerging content produced for Internet-based streaming services categorized as, “new media.”

Perhaps more significant than these overt concessions is what’s not addressed explicitly in the contracts in regards to working conditions. Reporting on the 1999 negotiations and contract makes no mention of addressing excessive hours. This would have been at the forefront of workers’ minds at the time due to the 1997 death of assistant camera operator Brent Hershman in a car crash caused by sleep deprivation from long work hours on his way home from work. Hershman’s death sparked a rank-and-file campaign led by union dissident Haskell Wexler to get the studios and the IA leadership to remedy this. If improvements had occurred, it would be expected that they would be reported on by the press and that IA leadership would trumpet those wins to the members to show themselves as fighting and responsive to their needs. None of this occurred. Likewise in 2002, there was “no language to address health and safety problems created by excessive hours.” In 2015, though the death of Sarah Jones due to poor safety conditions had occurred the previous year, there is no mention in any reporting on contract negotiations of health and safety or long hours.

In the most recent negotiations in 2018, though unsafe hours were a key issue officially for whole locals like Local 600 (who ran a social media campaign in which members shared their experiences of getting in or nearly getting in car crashes due to sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion) and Local 700 (who organized against an inadequate nine hour turnaround time between shifts), little progress if any was made to address the underlying reasons for poor working conditions. The most that IATSE was able to gain for its members were mandatory rides and rooms for those that work 14 hours or more a day and a swiss cheese-like ten hour turnaround time that only applied to TV and new media productions after the first season and to feature films and longform TV after two consecutive 14 hour days, none of which applied to on-call employees. When it does apply, the only disincentive for employers to not violate the turnaround period is the payment of a single hour of regular straight time pay to each worker, making brutally long hours a minor financial inconvenience for producers. 

Regrettably, IATSE has long accepted the logic of capitalist business, “motivated by a need to become more competitive in the marketplace,” (pg. 72) and in so doing let the AMPTP push down the standards for wages, benefits, and conditions while undercutting its own power to improve life for its members or even stop the decline.

RESPONSES FROM MEMBERSHIP AND LOCAL LEADERSHIP

So what was the response from international leadership, local leadership, and members to these gains and losses?

In 1993, the business agents of locals 44, 80, 683 (now merged into Local 700 as of 2010), 695, and 728 balked and caucused independently of the bargaining committee in response to concessions the AMPTP were pushing on the union. However, of the leaderships of the five locals, only Local 695 ended up recommending the tentative agreement be voted down. A group within Local 695 named “Sound United” published a letter in the publication, Daily Variety, urging members to vote down the tentative agreement because the producers “have ‘failed’ in the last few contracts to guarantee work in exchange for concessions.” In response, an anonymous letter was faxed to all of the Hollywood locals in which the group was denounced as “disgruntled.”

While vague and lacking in specific detail, we can get a sense that the employers were forcing concessions on the union by threatening to move or keep work elsewhere besides Hollywood, and either intimating or promising increased work in exchange. While this threat, known as “runaway production” in the film industry, has a long lineage going back to the 1950s and it is a recurring theme throughout all the negotiations since 1988.

In 1996, an unnamed group of IATSE members posted a quarter page ad in the Los Angeles Times denouncing a 22% pay cut for one hour episodic TV series with a budget under $1.3m per show in a side letter that would be accepted should members ratify the contract. I could discover nothing further after this letter. In 1999, while not opposing the contract ratification, then-president of Local 600, George Dibie, rebuked the AMPTP for using “runaway production,” to extract concessions. Besides these words, no other opposition is noted. In 2002, the previously-mentioned wage cuts and freezes were opposed through a campaign against ratification, but I could find nothing more written about this and the campaign seems to have failed.

We get a clearer picture starting in 2005. The 2005 negotiations are the second of three instances in the more than thirty years of negotiations in which any local union and local leadership goes on record in opposition to a tentative contract. Local membership in IATSE tends to be heavily demobilized, fragmented, and isolated. Along with numerous historical reasons for it, such as the development of IATSE’s top down organizational infrastructure by mob-controlled elected officers in the 1930s and their successors’ purging of militants and radicals from the union and the industry in the 1940s and 1950s, this is due in part to the nature of the work. IATSE members tend to work on a project basis, with ever-changing crews of coworkers with each production. This top-down model of unionism in which the union is run like a business means that a local formally opposing a contract through a recommendation by its executive board doesn’t necessarily equal a large base within that local in support of the actions of leadership. Still, it is significant that two of the three largest locals of the Hollywood bargaining unit, Local 44 and Local 600, opposed a tentative agreement.

The 2005 tentative agreement in which IATSE agreed to decreases in staffing minimums for camera workers, wage raises that were seen as not keeping up with inflation, and increases in healthcare co-pays sparked the ire of camera workers in Local 600 with leadership unanimously recommending members not ratify the agreement. The leadership of Local 44 issued the same recommendation, albeit more divided in a 10-8 vote, but over wages and benefits, not conditions and control of work. In the vote on the tentative agreement, both locals voted it down, making the delegate vote count, 243-114, or roughly 32% against the agreement. Significantly, this was the first year that the International decided not to release the popular vote count.

Between 2005 and 2018 when the next (and last) instance of formal local opposition occured, little is documented on member opposition. In 2008, in a “hostile reaction” to a tentative agreement that raised the number of work eligibility hours for healthcare from 300 hours to 400 hours, an unnamed group of IATSE members formed the “Say No To 400 Hours” coalition, created the website “400hours.com,” organized a picketed protest outside of the Spirit Awards, and mounted “a vigorous opposition campaign.” Opponents of the agreement also opposed the dropping of job classifications, boundaries, and staffing minimums for new media. Two members were identified by name and cited as members of Local 600 so it is likely that the opposition from Local 600 in the previous round of negotiations in 2005 carried over into this round.

In 2012, there was once again rank-and-file opposition to a tentative agreement over wage increases not keeping pace with inflation and increases to health care costs, this time via the implementation of premiums for the first time. There is no further detail on the opposition except that it had created a website and a Facebook group, “Say No To The Contract” (which by 2018 morphed into the “IATSE Contract Forum”). In 2015, there was no recorded opposition.

In 2018, Local 700 leadership, with their executive director Cathy Repola at the forefront, went on record to vehemently oppose the tentative agreement, recommending their membership vote it down, and being the sole local in the bargaining unit to do just that. The opposition was based on what was seen as insufficient pension funding, including a lack of streaming residuals, and lack of a ten hour turnaround rest period between shifts. The formula for the former, they said, excluded nearly all of new media and the latter was riddled with exemptions and loopholes which made it forceless and ineffective.

Repola and Local 700 president, Alan Haim, criticized the leadership of other locals for letting their memberships down by recommending a “yes” vote on the contract and stated they would be reaching out to the members of other locals to urge them to vote “no.” Though neither Local 600 leadership nor its membership ended up voting down the contract, Local 600 did, as mentioned above, try to put the issue of long, unsafe hours at the center of the negotiations with a social media campaign in which members shared their stories of car crashes and near car crashes due to sleep deprivation from work. Similarly, Local 871 was critical of the contract for not providing wage parity for its members—many of whom historically have been women or employed in historically female occupations—with other jobs that require comparable training, skill, and judgment that historically have been done by men. Even though members circulated a petition in advance of negotiations to build and show support for the issue, the leadership of Local 871, like Local 600’s, did not recommend to its membership that the contract be voted down and the membership listened.

In addition to recommending the contract be approved, Local 871’s business representative, Leslie Simon, told Local 871 membership

“You should not vote against this deal unless you are ready to strike, and believe that the vast majority of your colleagues are ready to do the same….Whether we achieved enough to avoid a strike, and to keep you all working, is ultimately your decision. I don’t advocate lightly for striking and believe that strikes take a lot of internal organizing prior to negotiations in order to be successful. I urge you all to take time in considering what a strike would mean for you and your families and weigh that against what is missing from this deal….I believe that ultimately it is in our best interest to accept this deal, continue working, and move on to fight the next battle.”

However, neither Local 871, any of the other locals in the bargaining unit, nor the International did any sort of internal organizing or contract campaigns to meaningfully survey members to develop their collective demands into specific proposals, conduct any kind of escalating series of job actions that would directly challenge management’s control on the set in order to help build members’ confidence in and readiness to strike, or keep members informed on the details of the negotiations and their progress. And when none of these are done by a union, the effect is to make members fearful of a strike, fearful of their own potential power, because they rightly see no preparation has been done to effectively oppose the employers. And so IATSE members ratified the contract out of fear. 

INTERNATIONAL POWER

IATSE is unique in some ways, as it gives a significant amount of power and control to the international during negotiations. One of the reasons the international has such power is that union contracts in the areas of motion picture and videotape production aren’t valid unless they’re signed by a representative of the International. Furthermore, if an employer has agreements with different locals and one of the locals wants to strike, the local must seek approval from the international president before it is allowed to hold a strike authorization vote. If a strike is held in these circumstances, then it not only requires a majority vote of the affected members in the local to end the strike but also the sanction of the international president. Since employers are often national, if not multinational, in scope and almost always have agreements with multiple locals, this effectively mandates approval from the international president in order to strike. In the case of the Basic Agreement locals, once a strike vote is held, it is also the international president who is the one who has the power to call the strike. Any local members, including officers, who conduct themselves counter to these rules expose themselves to fines, suspension, and expulsion, and any locals face fines, trusteeship, and revoking of their charter.

Outside the bounds of strike activity, the international president has the power to appoint as many and all international representatives as they deem necessary (subject to the approval of the general executive board), to interpret the constitution and bylaws of IATSE, to order members to refrain from rendering services to any employer the president deems “unfair,” to issue any rules or orders they see fit to in executing their duties of office, to declare a state of emergency in a local thereby exercising authority over any and all aspects of the local they deem necessary, to issue any special contracts with employers they deem necessary or expedient, and is responsible for trying all charges against members, local officers, and locals, and is empowered to appoint a trial board in their stead to try the charges. There are also informal means of exercising power by refusing to help a local when it needs help, refusing to support a local officer come election time, finding a technical breach of duties or technical defect in operations in a local in order to bring up its officers on charges, and appointing or removing from appointment an individual from office of a regional district, an industrial or technical department, any of the plans or funds the International oversees, or from the position of international representative. The weight of the international president and the international comes to bear greatly on what locals, local officers, and members do with potential serious threats for opposing its goals and directives.

A NEW INTERNATIONAL STRATEGY

In 1991, two years after the giant concessionary Basic Agreement contract of 1989 and the same year that the producers achieved “parity” with that contract for the New York film locals by forcing an equally concessionary contract on them through a de facto lockout by removing all productions from the city until they had an agreement, IATSE international spokesman Mac St. Johns reaffirmed in an op-ed piece in the LA Times that IA president Al Di Tolla “has publicly proclaimed that the union will do everything in its power to assist the producers in cutting costs, while ensuring its members a decent wage.” Indeed, in the New York negotiations, the International reprimanded Local 52 leadership for recommending its members vote the contract down and for the members voting it down, forcing them to hold a re-run election in which the contract was ratified by membership.

For the 1993 Basic Agreement negotiations, though the tentative agreement segmented working conditions, pay, and benefits based on production type and production budget, pushing the floor further downward on these issues, the IA claimed victory by touting increased funds to the health and pension plans, increased wages, and the promise of more jobs. In 1999, despite continued extracted concessions in working conditions, particularly for camera workers, IATSE president Tom Short stated that, “With this tentative basic agreement, endorsed by the local union business agents in the bargaining unit, we achieved our goal.” Notable here is that Short doesn’t frame the goal in terms of improved wages and conditions or fairness and respect on the job for workers and their approval of the agreement, but in terms of passing muster with local representatives, a significant difference in where the goal posts are positioned. One would ask if the purpose of a union is to get improvements that the local business agents like or that the membership does. 

With the start of the IA presidency by Short in 1994, a new bargaining strategy was implemented: holding negotiations far in advance of contract expirations in order to, “protect the continuity of work” for members,” to, “keep our industry prosperous,” and to avoid the uncertainty of work that a potential strike brings — the theory being that the AMPTP would be far more inclined to address and make a deal on bargaining issues rather than lose industry stability and risk a stoppage in production. Further delineating Short and the IA’s strategy were Short’s criticisms of the WGA’s bargaining goals in 2001 involving residuals, film credits (which have a direct impact on career opportunities and advancement), and increased control over production as, “wrongheaded,” “senseless,” “unobtainable,” chastising them for not keeping to “hard-core economic issues.” The antagonism against WGA would reach its high point in 2005-2007 as the IA fought WGA over representation of animation writers and reality TV editors, and Short attacked the WGA in its 2007 strike for new media residuals for being, “irresponsible and irrational,” “destroying a lot of lives,” and accusing them of not bargaining in good faith while pressuring IATSE members to cross WGA picket lines. In essence, anything involving control over the labor and production processes were unrealistic and off limits, especially if it was confrontational with the bosses.

This was coupled with the naive assumption that without the leverage of a credible strike under its belt, the AMPTP would be more willing to grant concessions to the IA. On the legislative front, the strategy entailed allying with the AMPTP to push for tax breaks and credits for the corporations of the latter to attract production and jobs to the U.S. and to particular states and locales within it. The unrecognized byproduct of this was the setting of IA locals in Canada and the U.S., and IA locals in different regions of the U.S., against each other in competition in a race to the bottom to lower standards and redistribute public money to the coffers of corporations.

In the 2002 negotiations, head of the AMPTP, Nicolas Counter III, lauded Short and the bargaining committee for the “professional and responsible way in which they conducted these negotiations.” Short claimed the 2002 tentative agreement as a victory, saying “we believe we have reached an agreement which will secure their [members’] future,” with the union touting its “gains in wages and employer health and pension plan contributions,” even as the agreement imposed wage freezes and cuts, increased health plan co-pays, did nothing to address excessive hours, and further decreased and segmented wages, benefits, and conditions based on production type and budget. This was of course counter to what Short had said seven years previous in his inaugural convention as president when he boasted, “The era of givebacks is history.”

“YES” MEN: RESPONSES FROM THE INTERNATIONAL

In the 2005 negotiations, in response to formal opposition to the tentative agreement from Locals 600 and 44, Short mounted, for the first time in Basic Agreement contract cycles, what could be considered a vote “yes” campaign by sending out a three page letter with ratification ballots praising the gains the agreement makes while putting pressure on members to ratify by equating a “no” vote with striking, all while not having built members’ confidence in striking by preparing them for such a possibility. This is a pattern that would repeat itself, including in 2018. Short called the contract, “the envy of the industry” despite criticisms of inadequate wage raises, increases in health plan co-pays, and decreasing staffing requirements for camera workers. Notably, the concessions put upon the camera workers were seen as punishment to the local for electing leadership on a reform slate called Coalition for a Democratic Union whose platform featured critique of and opposition to Short. Four months after contract ratification, the head of that elected reform slate, Gary Dunham, found himself removed from his post for, “exceeding the limits of his authority in office,” by letting a letter be published on the local’s website which opposed the contract and by allegedly letting a contract be cancelled with the pension and health plan funds.

In the following bargaining cycles of 2008, 2012, and 2018, the IA put on varying levels of vote “yes” campaigns in response to rank-and-file and local opposition to tentative agreements. One can assume that the larger the opposition, the larger their vote “yes” campaign, as any entity would want to conserve and use resources as necessary. The 2008 bargaining cycle began with Short, but was passed into the hands of Matt Loeb who finished the cycle and who was appointed when Short stepped down from the presidency one year in advance of the international convention where Loeb then ran and won unopposed. In response to rank-and-file opposition to the tentative agreement of that cycle for having a 33% increase in work hours necessary to qualify for the health plan as well as relaxed staffing minimums and job definitions for new media, the International, led by Loeb, ran a strong “yes” campaign urging members to ratify it and, as with Short, equating a “no” vote as a vote for a strike while having not even prepared the membership for that possibility. Once ratified, Loeb lauded the agreement as a, “strong contract,” that, “allows new media to evolve,” and provides, “the best protection,” that members could win while looking forward to, “three years of labor stability and a commitment to keeping our members working.”

In the 2012 negotiations, Loeb continued the tactic of stoking fear with the “no”-vote-equals-strike-vote equivocation as in the previous cycle, but taking it a step further by saying if the bargaining committee goes back to the table without a strike authorization vote, the employers will likely press for takebacks. Of course, if there were a strike vote or not would be completely dependent on if Loeb as international president approved the implementation of one. Upon ratification, Loeb celebrated the agreement once again as a “strong contract” for protecting members working terms and conditions, “exceeding standards significantly,” even while health plan premiums were instituted for the first time ever, opponents considered the wage increase inadequate, and terms and conditions remained lowered for new media to say nothing of the excessive hours normalized and rampant in the industry. No recorded opposition exists for the 2015 contract, but Loeb continued to use the same language in selling the contract to members, claiming a “solid contract that addresses important issues for our members,” that “represents significant gains and continued security,” and “major improvements” for new media.

What gave the lie for Loeb’s statements of praise for the 2015 contract was the large grassroots opposition movement three years later to the 2018 contract over unsafe, excessive hours, grossly inadequate residuals for streaming content and thus lack of pension funding, and lack of pay equity for historically female-dominated occupations. Had the 2015 contract been the “solid contract” that Loeb claimed it to be, there likely would not have been as deep an opposition as there was with that of Local 700 and spreading across the rank-and-file of other locals. In 2018, Loeb and the International mounted what was probably the largest “yes” campaign before 2021, launching a website touting the gains of the contract, putting on town halls, and pushing hard that it was a “huge victory” with “more personal time” for workers, “safer working conditions,” improved rest periods, and protected the pension and health plans in joint statements, emails, and even a letter accompanying ratification ballots.

However, much of the language used to sell the contract is vague and doesn’t point to specifics. For instance, Loeb claims that the agreement “expand[s] and improve[s] wages, terms and conditions for work on streaming platforms,” but doesn’t list what the concrete expansions and improvements are, the degree of the expansions and improvements made nor situate them in a concrete context. A wage could be $16/hr with a 3% increase of $0.48 and one could still technically claim that improvements to wages were made, but when the claim is given context and situated in everyday life and reality — $16.48 being completely insufficient to survive on — one could see it’s not much of an improvement at all. Without hard concrete numbers and goals, even the most marginal improvements can be wins and victories.

As mentioned further above, Repola of Local 700 led the opposition to the 2018 contract. Loeb, in response, accused her of violating federal labor law for taking part in negotiations as an appointed official (instead of an elected one), of waging a “propaganda campaign,” against the tentative agreement, and of being, “selfish, divisive, and irresponsible.” A little more than two weeks after the ratification vote, Loeb removed Repola from her seat on the board for directors for the pension and health plans.

BUILDING POWER

Over the past 30+ years, we can see then that IATSE in its Basic Agreement negotiations has traded away working conditions and power over how the job is done for wage increases and maintenance of benefits. In each big round of concessions, the obtainment of the latter is how the abandonment of control over the former has been justified, but in doing so, the workers and their union have decreased their collective power since that power is based on a collective ability to stop production and hence exert control over work. This has meant decreasing the ability to even get sufficient wage increases and benefit improvement, let alone preservation. 

Of course, IATSE is hardly alone here as most U.S. unions, per Kim Moody, agreed to surrender the contest for control over their workplaces in exchange for increasing wages and benefits tied to increased productivity in the 1950s. With the rise of a more aggressive employing class dealing with a systemwide decline in the rate of profit starting in the late 1970s, this trend of labor peace at all costs continued despite the change in the political and economic climate. The bosses attacked unions, fought to shred social programs, cut taxes on corporations, and slashed the regulations that protected workers from harm, while increasing the free movement of capital within and across borders to boost profit.

Unions and the consolidated “one-party states” that by then had developed and led many of them after they had purged and contained radicals and militants with the cudgel of McCarthyism had either forgotten how to fight effectively or were just unwilling to fight effectively against the rising power of management, as they had come to see management as partners with mutual interests. They could only ever tread water, as management clawed back the gains in wages and benefits and divided unions through the use of tiered contracts, weakening labor’s control on workplaces organized decades ago through bitter struggle. Many unions no longer strove to take labor out of competition with itself in the market, but instead strove to put it back into competition by accepting the, “competitive imperative,” of business and forcing their members to compete against themselves. By allowing management uncontested control over how production is organized (the production pipeline), how it is scheduled (based on days, and 16 hour days at that), where it occurs (workers in different states competing against each other), how work is done (job classifications), and how much work is done (no breaks or meals), the seeds for future exploitation will be planted and watered, as the AMPTP can simply increase work intensity or move production to further erode union strength.

This is the world that film workers and members of IATSE have inherited and find themselves in today.

If film workers in IATSE want to rebuild their power as a union and exert collective autonomy over their lives against the demands of capital, profit, and their employers, they will have to build the power and confidence to be able to assert direct control over their work processes and their working conditions along all points of the production process, including the supply chain that ends in the exhibition of the products they make. This will entail coordination across craft local lines by workers on the job. Since productions have no rank-and-file stewards on their sets, IATSE should work to develop a network of stewards on every set of every production. However, if the elected and appointed business agents of the Hollywood locals or the international refuse to undertake this basic task, film workers will have to develop their network of de facto stewards able to assist union members in need and enforce their rights on the job in the face of abusive and unsafe management.

Some groups of workers will have more leverage than others because of their position in the production process, but they will have to band together in solidarity with those with less leverage. They cannot afford to leave anyone behind if they wish to achieve the most meaningful gains possible. Ultimately, to create the organizational infrastructure to sustain and consolidate the power of film workers, the thirteen Hollywood locals will need to unite into one multi-craft industrial local, like the many studio mechanic locals in the IA that already exist around the country. There is already precedent for this in Hollywood: Local 37, which was shattered in the late 1930s into the fragmented craft locals we know today to maintain control over the union by those in international leadership looking to contain and quash the rank-and-file movement for a more democratic, more militant union.  Even then, there will have to be coordination, joint bargaining, and solidarity between above the line unions like SAG-AFTRA and WGA and below the line unions like the IA and the Basic Crafts to prevent the producers from setting them against each other to get a better share of the table scraps that the AMPTP is offering. It could even become the foundations for one giant democratic and militant industrial entertainment union.

Control over the workplace is of primary importance because the most important power relationship for most people in the United States is the one between themselves and their boss. This is also where you learn to address the needs of workers through organization, and in so doing you learn to push past cynicism, fear, confusion, and hopelessness to take action. Through collective action, workers learn to overcome their fear of the boss, and through the winning of immediate improvements, workers come to understand how real change occurs. This power and solidarity is the basis on which the de facto blacklisting that still occurs in the film industry for individuals who speak up about working conditions can be fought and overcome.

And if change is possible through collective action in the workplace, what is possible for change in larger society? The implications reverberate beyond the particular set and the particular industry IATSE members are in, touching upon both the revitalization of the broader labor movement and the building of power to be able to create a society that is run for and by workers instead of the thin sliver of the wealthy at the top. If workers in society are ever to build enough power to exert full democratic control over their work so that they produce based on what’s needed and useful — what’s for the common good — instead of based on what makes profit for that sliver of society at the top, they will most certainly have to control these areas of work and more.

But in building power, workers will have to face their own internal divisions, built-up prejudices, status quo organizational culture, and in many cases, their own union leadership and the political machines that exist on the local and international level who view the employers as partners and collaborators and which impede the participative democratic control and power of membership necessary over its own organization to ensure it stays responsive to their needs, not watered down from the influence of the employers on leadership and not pacified by the perks of office. Though the 13 international vice-president positions have sometimes historically had competition here and there for a few slots, the position of international president has been more or less passed down by fiat of the previous president and the international General Executive Board since the 1930s. This entails whoever the current president is stepping down before their term is over and appointing, with the approval of the General Executive Board, someone from the Board, or the assistant to the president, to the position for the remainder of the term who usually runs unopposed in the next convention election and nearly all others. 

This is the case with the current president, Matt Loeb. A lineage can be traced starting with Richard Walsh who was elected as international vice-president on the same slate as mob-controlled international president George Browne in 1934. On the General Executive Board, Walsh approved all of Browne’s actions, including signing off on a two-percent assessment of the wages of members of the Hollywood locals for any use Browne saw fit, receiving kickbacks from the assessment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when adjusted for inflation. He was appointed as president in 1941 when his predecessor was convicted and jailed for racketeering. Walsh faced two challenges during his 33-year tenure: one in 1954 from his right-hand man and rabid anti-communist, Roy Brewer, who had helped to purge most progressive militants from the union and the film industry, and the other in 1970 against Steve D’Inzillo, dissident from Projectionists’ Local 306 in New York City. He survived both of these challenges, and Walsh ultimately resigned from office in 1974 and appointed his assistant, Walter Diehl. Diehl did have competition from D’Inzillo at the convention later that year, but won and won all future elections until he resigned in 1986, appointing his assistant, Al Di Tolla. Di Tolla was re-elected at all future conventions and resigned in 1994, appointing general secretary-treasurer (and previously international vice-president) Tom Short, to president. Short ran unopposed at all future conventions until he resigned in 2008, appointing then-international vice-president Loeb to his current position as IATSE international president.

(If you’d like more information about this part of the history of IATSE, see Hollywood’s Other Blacklist: Union Struggles in the Studio System by Mike Nielsen and Gene Mailes.)

While the characteristics and politics of individual leaders do matter, what matters more is understanding that they do not exist in a vacuum but rather as a part of a system of labor relations that is very much shaped by economic and political pressures external to the union. If the rank-and-file membership does not exert equal or more influence and pressure on its leadership than the employers through their own initiative within their union, even the most progressive among our leaders will inevitably soften in the best case or become crooked in the worst. In this sense, union leadership become mediators between capital and labor, vacillating according to the strength of each. The more insulated from the immediate pressures of the workplace and membership they are, the less responsive they will be to the membership’s needs and the more responsive they will be to the employers’.

Further, the employers’ interests are also expressed through the laws and legal system of this country, where they become a titled playing field in which injunctions, fines, decertification, and jailing of union officers can be meted out against unions who push forward the interests of workers too far for the employers’ liking. The current system of exclusive representation and collective bargaining (e.g. the union and the union contract) becomes a double-edged sword: on the one hand, used by workers to expand their struggles and consolidate the gains from them and, on the other, used by the employers to discipline the union via the courts, and union members via the union leadership, for trying to further improve their lot beyond the bounds employers have had inscribed in law.

All of this serves to shape the institutional conservatism that union officers tend to take on when they become representatives of an organization. Over time, despite the best intentions of some, union leaders put the interests of the union as an institution over the interests of its members, forcing a conflict between the fight to improve conditions in the workplace and the desire to preserve what has already been won. Thus, a membership confident and able enough to organize for its needs independent of the official union apparatus via caucuses, groupings, and networks is key for keeping union leadership accountable as well as democratic organizational structures that de-insulate elected officers from the pressure of the rank-and-file membership, allowing for a union organization more responsive to its members and capable of winning transformational gains from the bosses.

For film workers in the IATSE Hollywood locals, there is a clear base for this rank-and-file organization in the past opposition to Basic Agreement tentative agreements. In 1988, the tentative agreement that unleashed the flood of deteriorated conditions was opposed by 51% of the voting membership. In 1993, the tentative agreement was opposed by 17% of those who voted. While official turnout numbers weren’t released, we can figure out the rough turnout by comparing the total vote count to the cited number of members in the bargaining unit. Hence in 1993, there were around 24,000 members in the bargaining unit which meant if around 10,000 votes were cast, there was a roughly 42% turnout, meaning that 35% of bargaining unit members voted to ratify the contract. We can figure out the voter turnout of other ratification votes in the same manner. In 1999, the next cycle for which there are numbers available, the tentative agreement passed by 92.5% but with only a 34% turnout meaning 32% of all members in the Hollywood locals approved it. 

In 2002, the tentative agreement passed by less with an 80% “yes” vote, corresponding to a larger member turnout of 47%. 2005 is the last year, except for 2018, in which any information on vote counts was released and this only in the delegate vote count, not the popular membership vote. Without this, it becomes harder to measure how big the opposition, either overt or by abstention, is. In 2005, 31% of delegates, led by locals 600 and 44, voted against the tentative agreement. In 2008 and 2012, the International leadership felt threatened enough with opposition to the tentative agreement that they ran “yes” campaigns to persuade the membership to vote for it. In 2015, there is little information on any of the negotiations, but in 2018, the International ran a large “yes” campaign to counteract the opposition of Local 700. The tentative agreement that year passed with a delegate vote of 81% — the 19% of delegates against being provided by Local 700 — but with a popular vote opposed to the contract of 47%.

Voter turnout is a reflection of how empowered and effective members feel in their actions within the workplace and union and thus of how many members find their participation in the union to be meaningful. A union where members felt like they had little to no control over their ability to control the terms and conditions of their work or the actions that the formal union took would not vote in large numbers on contracts or elections. This non-voting base that feels alienation, disempowerment, and likely resentment because of the deteriorated conditions they endure and the lack of agency they feel, as in the country’s political electoral voting patterns, is a damning indictment against the union’s formal leadership, and a source of massive potential for rank-and-file union revitalization. However, as in electoral campaigns in the U.S., they will likely not be able to be mobilized to vote until they know that they have agency and control, not only over their union but on the job and in their lives. Now in 2021, there is a seemingly wide but nebulous oppositional sentiment to the tentative agreement. However, until members take the steps to organize, they leave it up to chance, fate, and the forces of those who are organized — the employers and the existing union leadership — to decide how the die is cast.

Looking at the recent history of the negotiations between IATSE and AMPTP, it’s perhaps little surprise or news to the film workers themselves that their wages, benefits, and working conditions have been chipped away at, sometimes less, sometimes more, over time. For those who join the workforce after the battles have been lost and the concessions have been made, the conditions they face can take on the aura of being the natural order of things — the way things just are and have always been. Without a mode of storytelling and recordkeeping either facilitated by union leadership that prizes healthy internal dissent and debate or one independent of the formal union apparatus via rank-and-file publications, slates, and opposition caucuses, the story told will be that told by the union leadership. And that story can be meaningful and important, but if the union leadership have never faced meaningfully competitive elections, have effectively held down opposition as it arises, and have been the ones to negotiate concessionary contracts, the story of that decline in worker power and working conditions will be hidden by them in order to justify their continued presence in office and status that it brings.

If the union membership wish to be able to not just fight back against concessions to keep the status quo, but to positively transform their working conditions and their lives, then they will have to take up themselves the organizing that builds the power necessary to win, working with the existing leadership when they properly represent them, but being prepared to hold them accountable and to work independently of them whenever they misrepresent them. This is where the power of a union comes from: workers getting together collectively to articulate their needs, determine their priorities, plan a course of action for achieving them, and act to get them met, with the ability to withhold their labor to stop production if need be. If workers aren’t capable of or confident in taking action collectively, then they will not be able to exert control over their work.

The purpose of the union, at its best, is educating and empowering workers on how to build, maintain, and exert their power in the workplace and in society — that is, how to strike (and other, less risky forms of action) and win. And just like a muscle, if workers never strike, never withhold their labor in the workplace, never take action to defend themselves in their daily work lives, then that ability will atrophy as will the confidence that comes with it. It is up to rank-and-file members of IATSE now to start that rehabilitation, to take the first difficult and uncertain steps forward after years of muscular disuse by organizing with their coworkers and building rank-and-file organization to get their needs met by their bosses and to ensure their leadership is rightly representing their needs. There will be setbacks, hardships, duplicity, and also victory, earned relief and security, and the clasp of solidarity and communion with our union kin.

In the end, we must ask ourselves two questions: what is real power over the working conditions that shape our lives so much actually worth, and what are we willing to do to achieve that power? 

Aaron Hall is a stagehand, A/V technician, member, and steward of IATSE local 107 based in the Bay Area.

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