Movie Industry Strike Date Set

Yesterday, I came out of the internet anonymity closet and identified myself as having been employed for more than a decade by IATSE - the International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees. This was in connection with a C99 members' account of several instances of labor resistance around the country that included the news about IATSE movie and TV production employees voting to authorize an industry wide strike.

I scoffed at the the possibility of IATSE shutting down the industry. It has never happened before. I did not mention this yesterday, but my skepticism about a strike is based on the nature of that union and the nature of that industry. IATSE has, along with the other Hollywood unions, one of the last remaining Industry Wide contracts. Since the 1980s, most old school unions have disappeared along with the manufacturing jobs, but the motion picture industry is still operating under nationwide labor agreements.

This gives the entertainment industry unions more leverage than all the other unions where contracts tend to be isolated by facility. If you put a local TV station on strike, even one owned by a major network, all the other stations owned by that company continue to broadcast without a hiccup and overall cashflow remains strong.

For that reason, the movie production contract is extremely lucrative. In the camera department, the lowest paying job on a major movie is about $40 per hour. The Director of Photography makes over $100 per hour. The health and retirement benefits are just about the best available under union contract in the USA.

The catch for the entertainment unions is that there is no job security for all but the lowest skilled jobs. That $100 per hour cinematographer can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, and the union cannot do anything about it other than collect dues from the new DP.

This makes traditional union solidarity very problematical. Our slogans like "An Injury to One is An Injury to All" cannot apply in IATSE or the other Guilds -- instead a more accurate buzz phrase would be "An Injury to You Is An Opportunity for Me." In a real sense, movie industry "union" members are actually entrepreneurs competing with each other for jobs. Capitalism within capitalism.

I do not find any of this evil, wrong or even unwise. The high pay and great benefits are powerful justifications and having people who work with their hands making upper middle class money is a wonderful exception to the rules that have been stuffed down labor's throat since the Reagan years.

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Given this history, I was surprised to see this morning that IATSE just set a strike day for next Monday. This does not mean a strike will happen, but I have to shift my betting line from 1000 to one for no strike to ten to one for no strike. Still very unlikely, but World War I happened against all odds and all common sense.

This has become significant. If a lapdog union like a motion picture production guild's top leadership is playing this kind of brinksmanship like never before in history, something new and different must be going on. Yesterday I related that the specific issues being fought over are kept secret from the IATSE membership. Today's announcement of the strike date did provide some clues:

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The outstanding issues remain:

Wages, including living wages
Meal Breaks
Weekend Rest Periods
Pension hours required for a qualified year
New Media rates, terms and conditions
Sustainable Benefits

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My Insider take on all of those vaguely defined issues is that there are no Management Takeaways on the list. That is what I expected from the Industry, and just because nothing like that is in today's rev-up email blast, it does not necessarily mean that the Producers are not making serious demands for cuts in pay, benefit and conditions.

Assuming for the moment that there are no big Takeaways being pushed by the Producers, it means that the union leadership is willing to blow up a very long term friendly relationship with this industry in order to get a better contract. That is mind boggling.

If that is what is going on, it will not be due to membership demands -- it will be due to the decisions made by IATSE President Matt Loeb and his closest advisors. I do not find that good or bad in and of itself -- the great union leaders of the past including Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis and Jimmy Hoffa autocratically called strikes and settled contracts as they deemed necessary. No doubt they complied with the procedural niceties, but there was also no doubt about how it worked. When Jimmy says to strike, we strike. When he says go back to work we go back to work.

This rather esoteric account has real significance far beyond IATSE members. A strike will shut down the industry altogether. The last time that happened in this industry was in 2007 when the Writer's Guild went on strike. The final result was the producers tripled and quadrupled down on "Reality" programming and there are far fewer writers working because of it.

There is a real threat of the Producers moving the entire industry off shore. The streaming companies like Apple and Amazon have built up formidable production capacity pretty much over night. It would not tax their resources which are now infinite to start over from scratch in China or Eastern Europe or any combination of studio colonies.

That is why I still believe a strike is unlikely and that Matt Loeb is trying to play as tough a hand as he can before folding. That's probably what the guys who ran Austria thought in August of 1914.

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Finally turning to that list of vague "issues" -- the real contention is under the heading of "new media." Which means streaming for the most part, and it is not a subgenre any more. I think it was 2009 when IATSE and the Producers agreed to lower rates and less restrictive contract language for "new media."

I believe that this is the real problem for Loeb and the Industry. Loeb realizes that if the lower rates for streaming continue, it will not be long before every movie job in the world is on the lower rates. That is tantamount to a major concession, although technically it is a request for improvement of current conditions by the union.

If my cynical take is wrong and this does shut down the industry next week, it will be a fascinating story. There will almost certainly be litigation from the start and it will be interesting to see how the National Labor Relations Board deals with it. Also, the companies that will be struck are also major news content providers. How will they cover their own labor dispute? And, most importantly, how will the general public react to all this?

My days as a union big shot ended when I was very young, in the 1980s when I quit and became a renegade who started an independent union (that failed.) I was able to get work as a field representative after 13 years of exile, but I have not been in the Inner Circle of any union in my second career.

Nevertheless my ego and memories of past glory make me imagine that I know what I'm talking about. IATSE should not go on strike. That would almost certainly be a total disaster for the membership. Isolated shut downs of individual movies and TV shows would be very effective while allowing the bulk of the membership to continue to earn a living.

But the major push should be to try to split up the producers. That is how we did it half a century ago. The UAW would pick a target rather than striking the entire industry. In order to put maximum pressure on points of division between the giant producers, the Union should start a boycott of Walt Disney Pictures.

It would be very easy to put thousands of demonstrators in front of Disney Land and Disney World. Just how bad does Disney want to defend Amazon and Apple's business model?

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Interesting times.

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QMS's picture

Don't know about Apple, but their labor conditions are apparently abhorrent overseas.

Too big to challenge?

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8 users have voted.

hurt this country if it’s largest propaganda industry shut down for a while?

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10 users have voted.

Ya got to be a Spirit, cain't be no Ghost. . .

Explain Bldg #7. . .

@Tall Bald and Ugly .

It points up the inherent difficulty of solidarity. It is not in the personal interest of anybody who has jumped over all the hoops it takes to become a regularly working motion picture technician or craftsperson to shut down the industry unless it leads directly to a better deal. For the rest of us, destroying Amazon, Apple, Disney, Warner Bros., NBC Universal, Viacom and Sony would probably be the best thing ever to happen to the United States of America.

There are many simple but intractable problems with fighting back against tyranny. Another is police unions -- during my 13 years of exile from AFL-CIO unions, I made a living representing the unaffiliated Fraternal Order of Police in Texas. The experience was hideous as a significant minority of my clients were cops who wanted a jake-leg lawyer to get them off when they abused citizens. The majority, of the other hand, were interested in better pay and working conditions.

One member told me, "We all are interested in labor issues, but we are cops and we care more about putting the bad guys in jail." A solution to this problem can be found frequently advocated among progressives -- take away the right to unionize from cops.

I got news for everybody. You do not have to be a union to organize. And killing the cop unions will not kill their paranoia or their collective ability to organize. My fondest memory of those years came in the city of Midland, Texas, home town of George Walker Bush. There was no collective bargaining in that city and the Fraternal Order of Police was a voluntary association and the City was under no obligation to talk me, let alone negotiate with me as the cops' representative.

After going three years without a raise, I organized a ticket strike -- and not one single speeding ticket got issued for over a month. In Texas in those days there was a state law forbidding ticket quotas -- so each cop memorized this line: "Sergeant, I did not see anybody speeding during my shift. Tell me how many tickets you want me to write and I will make sure I catch that number of speeders."

Eventually some dumb sergeant said, "Goddammit, I know what you are pulling and if you do not come in with at least three citations today, I am going to write you up."

Cazart! I filed a grievance under the City's personnel rules and the City Manager finally called me and the leader of the cops into his office. "What do you want?" We got a significant increase in compensation without anything being in writing. But we got what we wanted.

Any group of any occupation can fuck things up if the will is present -- and there is somebody crazy enough to dream up concerted activities like the ticket strike.

The hard part is finding the will to do things that make bosses upset.

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Eventually, the other half of representing the cops nearly killed me . . . .
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The point now is that once we make up our minds that we want unity, which is hard enough to do, then we have to actually forge a unity of some kind. Unfortunately almost all of us have to make some sort of accommodation with the status quo in order to eat.

That's why the hammer coming down now is having such an easy time of controlling us. It is hard, but not impossible, to fight back.

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15 users have voted.

I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

Lily O Lady's picture

She’s a Berniecrat and supports the strike. She wrote that something like 90% (or more, I don’t remember exactly) of the membership voted in favor of the strike. She doesn’t seem to have a competitive attitude vis-a-vis her fellow workers, which fits the Berniecrat mould.

My impression from her is that the turnaround time is killing her. Sixteen hour days leaves little time to sleep, let alone to commute, shower, eat, etc. She knows that lots of jobs means she’s making money and she offers jobs to people when they are available. She likes to work. She is human, though, and wants to be treated as one.

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10 users have voted.

"The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

@Lily O Lady .

The issue shows how bizarre working for Tinsel Town can be. The standard union practice to keep a lid on excess hours is premium pay -- time and a half after 8 hours and double time after 12 or 14 depending on location. In the Low Budget movie agreement that is totally separate from this major studio contract, you get triple time after 15 hours. The Big Time Producers have steadfastly refused to go any further than double time - but they show not the slightest worry about double time for on up to 20 or more hours per day.

An interesting question as to why the studios insist on such long days. The answer is ironically closely related to the solidarity issue. The real reason for making the comparatively well paid technicians and craft persons work so many absurdly long days is "the talent." Movie star contracts tend to be so far over SAG scale that hourly pay is not a factor. They effectively work by the day as I have been told by IATSE members and their mega buck contracts are far more of a cost item than the entire crew. Fewer days for the talent saves huge amounts of money, dwarfing the cost of premium hours to people behind the camera.

One other complicating factor for IATSE is the divide between the very well paid skilled technicians and the grunts who schlep cables around. The lower paid people want the hours and many of them think the hoity toity classifications are both elitist and wimpy.

But your friend is telling you the gospel truth -- 16 hour days are common. In TV production there is another painful issue based on the required "turnaround time" between work days. As you go past 15 hours or so, you force a later start time for the next day as the contract requires at least nine hours off between workdays. Four long days in a row and the call for Friday can be as late as 4pm -- 16 hours later your week is finally over at 8am Saturday morning. They call that kind workday, "Fraterday."

This scenario is a cauldron of capitalistic excesses and many workers get addicted to the system, much like abused spouses.

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7 users have voted.

I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

but would such a strike shut down the World Series?

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2 users have voted.
snoopydawg's picture

@Linda Wood

to give people hot dawgs and beer and whatnots. The ones who work for the Giants organization haven’t had a raise in years. But of course they are contracted through a 3rd party and not affiliated with the Giants. This was one of the recent scams. Spend tons of money on the company who then stiffs the workers.

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4 users have voted.

In a free country civil liberties are not only for certain groups.
So this is how liberty dies . . . with thunderous applause.
The donor class doesn’t want it, and Americans elect the bribed. So suck it up.

would such a strike shut down mainstream media news mouthpieces like CNN, PBS, and Rachel Madcow?

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2 users have voted.

@Linda Wood

It does not apply to either sports or news. Both are unionized to a high degree, but there is not just one big contract covering TV news and sports. By the way, the tiny slice of the union that I worked with -- local TV news photojournalists and editors -- would be in a much stronger position if they were in One Big Union Contract like the movies.

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6 users have voted.

I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

As a former member and past president of IATSE Local 504 in Orange County CA. I can inform you that the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Union is one of several that has members employed in the broadcast / movie industry.
I believe NABET-CWA co-operation would be crucial for any strike to be truly effective.
As I understand it the issue at this time is the classification of a production for release on streaming platforms vs traditional release platforms ie movies / broadcast television.
The IATSE Union has given the producers of streaming only content a "special deal" in the past on these productions. This was as an introduction for a new form of media.
They are now saying (as I understand it) that streaming content has grown beyond the new form of media stage and those employees working on that type of production deserve the same pay and benefits as employees doing the same or similar work for traditional forms of content.
This is not that complicated.
In fact from a union point of view it is a no brainer.
If a strike is called on the streaming productions those producers will surely try to keep going with non union crews.
I do not think they will try to move productions out of the North American Region on a large scale.
If this were feasible they would have already done it.
It is a big gamble but one that must be taken in order for the union members in similar jobs to receive similar pay and benefits.
This is in line with a basic concept of union representation by way of trying to keep same pay for same work across the board within a geographical area.
Raising up the lower paid members to an equal pay scale as the rest of the work force is crucial.
The producers will try to lower the pay and benefits down on the upper tier work over time.
Many of the main aspects in this kind of work mentioned in some comments like long hours and short turn around time between shifts is not what this is fight about. (as I understand it)
Those situations are normal for this industry.
The issue is the pay scale and benefits for employees producing media for streaming only release being lower than employees performing similar work for productions of content for more traditional release.

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4 users have voted.

@jbob
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I believe our only area of disagreement is in the always iffy area of prediction -- whether the Industry could or would go offshore in the face of getting its ass kicked in a strike.

Who knows anything for sure? Especially now when every assumption we've ever counted on could have evaporated while we weren't looking? At any rate, I believe the streaming companies are the key to the future of the industry and they do not have any roots to speak of in Hollywood.

I absolutely agree with you that IF the real point of dispute is new media, IATSE should fight to the death over getting rid of the lower rates and conditions altogether. However, the 13 Hollywood Locals have been mobilizing the membership over Unsafe Hours for the last five years, and that is what will motivate participation in a strike as it goes past the fun first two weeks and becomes a month by month grind with bills piling up.

My money is still on a last minute settlement.

Interesting times indeed.

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2 users have voted.

I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.

I've been following this with interest. I was an audio guy who did some really pissant stuff, more on the music side of the isle. At least here in flyover country, unions didn't have too much of a foothold. (I guess you could say that for pretty much every field barring UAW and cops, heh.)

Anyway, your take is interesting. Part of the reason I got out of the music stuff was no matter the quality of my work, there was always someone willing to do it cheaper. Unfortunately, price ruled the day more often than not. When it got to the point where I was having to compete with people willing to work for slightly more than free, I walked away. It wasn't even that I was overvaluing my worth. I was just trying to pay rent.

The entertainment biz is brutal like that. They absolutely know how desperate people want to be involved and they will take advantage of that. Unfortunately, that desire is stronger than the realization that all you're doing is devaluing the market. If you'll take $12/hour, the next guy will take $11 and so on. It's disheartening, and unsurprising, to hear that's happening within the union.

I got a chuckle out of the idea of striking against Disney specifically. I recently fell down a rabbit hole about the time Disney's animators went on strike and how it broke Walt's brain, so to speak. As I understand, to the end of his days, he was still pissed about how the Communists tried to wreck his studio, as he blamed them for the strike.

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3 users have voted.

Idolizing a politician is like believing the stripper really likes you.

@Dr. John Carpenter
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I got stuck working for IATSE in 2008 when my grand Ralph Kramden-ish scheme to start my own public sector union representation business blew up in my face. Not being totally suicidal, I waited until I had a job offer in my back pocket before I quit my previous job to go out on my own. When the new business idea crashed and burned very quickly, I took the IATSE job.

I got to know the entertainment business far too well over the next 12 years and 10 months.

In this microculture the only thing anybody cares about is what everybody is talking about. And nobody wants everybody to be talking about them, unless it is about something good, which accounts for about 2% of what everybody is talking about. So everybody who is anybody is in a constant state of anxiety to keep from becoming the shitty thing that everybody is talking about today.

This leads to treachery galore and the infamous Hollywood habit of lying. If you admit to anything wrong, you just threw gasoline of the fire of what everybody is talking about..

All of this bullshit industry that gets sent up regularly in TV and movies is based on the economics of show business. Money is placed on long shot bets. Most productions do not become hits and it takes a platoon of tax lawyers to make the system work. Hits make delirious amounts of profit, even after paying the million+ dollar contracts of the talent.

For both movies and TV series, nobody stays on one job for a whole career -- not even Johnny Carson. Most "jobs" are one shot deals and once you wrap, you have to find another one. And that is what drives the bullshit -- your ability to feed your family is a function of what the people who hire for your classification hear about you.

Or what they hear bad about the other candidates.
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You were wise to get out of this business. The joke toward the end of the movie version of the musical, Chicago, sums it up. Catherine Zeta-Jones tries to persuade Rene Zellweger to join with her in a two-girl act. Rene says no because, "I hate you." Catherine smiles and says, "This is the only business in the whole world where that doesn't matter!"

Cut to their Big Number in their Two-Girl Show.

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4 users have voted.

I cried when I wrote this song. Sue me if I play too long.