A union dispute is threatening to shut down Hollywood

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Even before we were firmly in year two of a global pandemic, movies and television were a cultural salve that kept us binge watching and meme making. When the world is so politically divided, the content we consume is often a rarified common ground. We want to be distracted and entertained, but do we ever contemplate at what price? We're always paying attention to which talent gets tapped for new projects, who inks big streaming production deals, and when major releases are slated to air, but there's rarely much attention given to all of the "below the line" workers who are crucial to every single set. The outside view of Hollywood is all glamour and money, but there is an entire industry of regular people that the monied and celebrated stand atop. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and its 13 Hollywood local unions are fighting to finally be heard, in a campaign that will end this weekend, in a vote to authorize a nationwide union crew member strike.

Every film and TV set relies on a large, crucial group of crew members to function. There are grips, lighting techs, set decorators, camera crew, craft services and production workers aplenty, and while being paramount to every set, it's the most grueling and thankless work in the business. The IATSE has been using social media in recent weeks to galvanize their cause. Horrific treatment and callous attitudes from producers towards crew members are being leaked and shared widely through the Instagram account @ia_stories.

Personal anecdotes reveal excruciating hours, with crew usually being called to set well before above the line cast and producers, and staying long after they leave. Brief meal breaks are often infringed upon, even during a workday of 12 hours or longer, for the sake of shortening production time and saving money for the studios. Weekends are often shortened for crew members or removed all together for whole weeks of shooting. These essential workers are typically denied any kind of benefits, paid meager wages, and oftentimes productions will get behind on paying workers during shooting.

IATSE president Matt Loeb, along with the presidents of 13 Hollywood locals, issued a joint statement Tuesday: "Now is the time to change the culture of our work places. We fully support our members who demand safe and sane working conditions, equitable wages and sustainable health and pension benefits." They continued, "Our responsibility to our members and generations to follow is to correct these untenable conditions. We endorse a ‘YES’ vote for the strike authorization that will empower our negotiators to secure a fair deal, knowing they can rely upon our strength and our unity, our trust in one another and our shared belief in a better future." The vote will take place from October 1 through 3.

The @ia_stories account has revealed inside information from mandatory studio meetings in response to the union rallying, with producers allegedly wagering that workers won't actually strike because they can't financially afford to — highlighting their flippant regard for conditions they can admit aren't livable. In addition to circulating their experiences, union members are also cancelling their streaming subscriptions en masse in an attempt to financially protest abusive studios. According to those protesting, streaming services, or "new media," worked lower wages into their IATSE contracts over a decade ago when they were still a novelty in the landscape of production giants. Now that they are major players, many allege they are using antiquated contracts as loopholes to not pay living wages or residuals. A nationwide strike would allow for fair negotiations to change this.

The call for a vote to strike comes at a time when many industries are rife with disenchanted workers insisting on better conditions. The pandemic ushered in an unprecedented wave of Americans rethinking what they are willing to do to earn money, and what constitutes fair working conditions. While only economics experts can chart where these shifting trends in employment and industry are going, the social feeling of worker solidarity is palpable without any graphs. Living in a bit of a doomsday landscape has people wanting to enjoy their work, and have more time to enjoy their lives outside of it as well — the fight in Hollywood is no different.

We've had an embarrassment of riches in terms of shows and films to watch, but that could all quickly change if a strike is authorized. A production halt similar to what we saw at the beginning of the pandemic could ensue, resulting in us scrambling to find our next distraction viewing under the rocks of old youtube videos once again. The strike will likely yield quick negotiating and an agreement that would allow for productions to start back up, but regardless many productions stand to be majorly set back if the vote goes as many predict it will this weekend.