Hollywood’s next big drama might be its own labor fight

One of the largest entertainment unions has authorized a strike as early as next week if contract negotiations fail.

Hollywood sign, Los Angeles, California, United States

Over the last few weeks, tensions have been boiling in Hollywood. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its 13 respective Los Angeles local unions have been rallying to affect real change in the industry for “below the line” workers — and producers behind the scenes have allegedly been trying to organize against it. IATSE’s slogan “the union behind entertainment” rings true now though, as they’ve successfully leveraged their weight as the muscle behind the glossiness of Hollywood. After organizing a vote to strike, they now have a seat at the table with production studios. The question remains though: will 60,000 entertainment industry workers actually strike? Unless an agreement can be reached by next week, the answer will be yes. A clock on the IATSE’s website is currently counting down to Monday, October 18 at midnight.

But what eludes many TV and movie viewers is just who these below the line workers are. Everyone knows there are behind the scenes people on sets, and obviously crew, but the film industry really does take a village. Depending on the size of a project there could be hundreds of unglamorous positions on set, all equally crucial and equally thankless. It’s competitive work, because there are so many people wanting to break into that side of the industry, and in order to get into the Union, which is a badge of professional validation and your only guarantee of worker protections, you need so many hours of work. Because of that, exploitation reigns supreme. The expectations to go above and beyond your pay grade — sometimes even your area of expertise — or risk getting fired are very real. Hours are typically unrealistic at best and abusive at worst, while benefits and adequate pay are hard to come by. IATSE has made sure to weaponize that truth by encouraging all members to tell their stories.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers released their own statement today in response: “There are five whole days left to reach a deal, and the studios will continue to negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach an agreement for a new contract that will keep the industry working.” Conversely a text has been circulating through IATSE members stating, “Local IA leadership just got out of a meeting with [IATSE President Matt] Loeb...Leadership advised me to tell members to get your kits tidy this week. Be prepared to work on Monday but also be prepared to picket/walk off.”

One of the cited issues that IATSE seeks to remedy is the abuse of old contracts by streaming studios. At the time that those contracts were created with the union years ago, streaming production companies were new and small, even niche—so they negotiated small pay rate guarantees. Now that they are just as competitive with the major league, traditional studios, they haven’t come to the table to renegotiate what should be fair on productions that require more from their crew.

An IATSE strike would mean major production delays in an industry that’s really just getting its post-pandemic groove back. COVID-19 saw Hollywood lose quite a bit of money: according to the Motion Picture Association’s THEME Report, in 2020 alone the entire global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market totaled $80.8 billion, a loss of 18% from 2019. Theatrical revenue tanked from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020. But it’s those very numbers that serve to unify the little guys. Yes, a lot of big wigs and very rich people lost an exorbitant amount of money, but they did it from mansions with no threat to their health insurance. Meanwhile, out of work IATSE members had no financial security during the pandemic, and were part of the mass of American workers who lost not just their livelihoods, but potentially their entire savings, homes or health benefits.

This glaring post-pandemic delineation between the haves and the have nots has strengthened the backbone of American workers. Many are currently calling the labor shortage a “crisis,” but that’s a lofty viewpoint. Sure, for some not having people there to do the work is alarming and losing them money — but for workers it’s a protest of unfair conditions, and an opportunity to refuse to return to work until standards, wages and benefits match the economic growth of the past decade. And that’s exactly what IATSE is asking for — fairness, living wages and safe conditions. It should be doable, considering the growth of the industry brought on by the success of streamers. But considering how Hollywood has essentially made exploitation a tradition, we’ll see if producers budge before the picket line is formed.

If you support the IATSE and local unions’ mission, the petition to sign in solidarity can be found here.