Above photo: After months on the picket lines supporting the writers and actors strikes, film and television crew workers are taking center stage. IATSE.
After supporting screenwriters and actors through a months-long double strike, film and television crew workers are finally stepping into the spotlight themselves.
Dissatisfied with their union’s leadership and direction, a group of members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is launching a reform caucus called CREW, or the Caucus of Rank-and-File Entertainment Workers.
Their first public event will be a webinar on November 16 on preparing for the 2024 expiration of the main pattern-setting contracts they work under, the Hollywood Basic Agreement (HBA) and Area Standards Agreement (ASA).
IATSE has 170,000 members across the U.S. and Canada, well beyond Hollywood. They work behind the scenes in film, TV, theater, and live events, and in roles as diverse as lighting, sound, cinematography, animation, editing, costume, set design, and on-set education.
Hollywood is still rightfully known as a union town, but in the 1940s and 1950s, the film industry had close to 100 percent union density. By 1989 that rate had fallen to 40 percent, reflecting the prolonged assault against unions. As IATSE weakened, so did its contracts. Some of the worst conditions members face now were traded as concessions only in the last few decades.
These include long hours and inadequate pay. “We shouldn’t have to work every day without a day off for months on end and no home life just to afford to live,” said Maggie Goll, who works in special effects and is a member of IATSE Local 44 in Los Angeles.
Local 107 member Aaron Hall is a stagehand and audiovisual technician who works in theater and live events. About a third of IATSE members work in these industries, while the rest work in film and TV. He notes that stronger contracts in film and TV improve the negotiating position of all workers in the union.
“If we don’t have a fighting, democratic union in motion picture and television, it will be hard to have a fighting union in stagecraft,” Hall said. Both parts of the union are also affected by common issues, such as dangerously long hours.
Majority Vote Loses
To understand why IATSE members want to reform their union, we need to rewind to “Striketober” 2021, when 60,000 film and TV crew workers appeared poised to follow the walkouts at John Deere and Kellogg’s. Members across 36 locals covered by the HBA and the ASA voted by 98 percent to authorize a strike, with a formidable 90 percent turnout.
Film crew members were literally sick and tired, having worked through the pandemic to meet the studios’ hunger to profit from the rising demand for streaming services. The tragic on-set death of cinematographer and IATSE member Halyna Hutchins prompted further grief and outrage.
Two days before the October 18 strike deadline, a tentative agreement was reached for the HBA, averting a strike. Many workers argued that the agreement fell short of their demands, such as raises that would address inflation, shorter hours and longer turnaround times (a popular demand was “12 hours on, 12 hours off”), and increases in employer contributions to pensions and health benefits, funded with residuals from streaming.
A slim majority of members voted against ratifying the HBA contract, 50.4 percent no to 49.6 percent yes. Members voted for the proposed ASA agreement by an unenthusiastic 52 percent to 48 percent.
However, because of IATSE’s electoral college-style ratification procedure, it was ultimately delegates’ votes that counted. The combined vote of the delegates on the HBA and the ASA was 349 yes to 282 no, with both agreements sailing through.
This failure of union democracy and the lackluster deal were a bitter disappointment for many IATSE members. Two years on, emboldened by the writers and actors strikes, they haven’t forgotten.
How Crew Came Together
IATSE will soon get another crack at bargaining the HBA, which expires on July 31, 2024, and covers 40,000 workers across 13 Hollywood locals. The ASA, which expires at the same time and is patterned off the HBA, covers 20,000 more workers across the country. The HBA sets the pattern for many contracts throughout the film and TV industry, and is therefore a focal point for many union members, including those in CREW.
Many of the founders of CREW met each other for the first time at the Labor Notes Conference in June 2022. They have spent the last year getting on the same page about their values and goals, slowly building up a core of members, and preparing for their public launch.
Goll was one of several workers who helped organize a special session for IATSE members at the conference. She was motivated to get involved by the disappointing 2021 contract negotiations. “The tentative agreement wasn’t what anyone was expecting,” she says.
During the ratification vote, she made it her mission to speak to co-workers on set as well as over social media—including on several IATSE Facebook groups—to explain why she was voting no. There wasn’t a coordinated “no” campaign, only the combined efforts of motivated members like Goll.
Other IATSE members who planned the Labor Notes Conference session initially met through the Democratic Socialists of America, whose National Labor Commission connects members within the same industries.
Voice For Every Member
The CREW caucus platform emphasizes strong contracts, union democracy, education, and solidarity.
One important demand related to union democracy, borrowed from reform caucuses in the Teamsters and the Auto Workers, is one member, one vote, or direct elections for top union leadership. “A lot of the problems that we have—the reasons why things change so slowly—is because the people in charge have been there too long,” said Goll.
“We may have ousted the people who enacted mob rule in the 1930s in IATSE, but we didn’t oust the institutions that put them there,” said Nora Meek, a member of the Animation Guild, IATSE Local 839, and a founding CREW member.
In the 1930s, mob-controlled officers instituted the union’s top-down structure and initiated an unbroken line of IATSE presidents who appointed their successors (to be rubber-stamped by delegates) down to the present day.
Meek, who lives in Los Angeles, was politicized on this issue when she attended the annual convention for her IATSE district. She discovered that international officers are elected indirectly through a delegate system. Resolutions she supported were defeated by this conservative-leaning body, including one that had passed in her local about police union affiliation with the AFL-CIO, and another on changing the voting method at the convention.
She also learned that the contract for animation workers is patterned off the HBA, but members of the Animation Guild don’t have input into important aspects of their contract, such as health care and residual plans. She realized that “there was a lack of avenues to express my opinion as a worker,” Meek said. “I didn’t have a vote in a lot of what IATSE did.”
2024 Contract Fight
The past year has been trying for IATSE members. The Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strikes meant that IATSE film workers were out of work for months. This will make it economically challenging to go on strike in 2024.
“What’s unfortunate for IATSE is that, while we supported the WGA and SAG-AFTRA very willingly, we’re going into our own negotiations very economically depleted,” said David McMahon, a IATSE Local 52 member who works in set construction for film and TV. “It’s going to take a real effort to make sure everyone’s ready in our contract fight. But I think there’s enough frustration there.”
He is excited by Auto Workers President Shawn Fain’s challenge to the labor movement to align contract expiration dates for May 1, 2028. That’s when the recently negotiated Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors contracts, if ratified, are set to expire.
“One of our objectives is to have synchronized contracts [across the film industry], eventually,” McMahon said. “Hearing Shawn Fain state a deadline of May 1, 2028, is amazing.”
McMahon also takes inspiration from how the caucuses Unite All Workers for Democracy (in auto) and Teamsters for a Democratic Union helped to lay the groundwork for contract campaigns well in advance of potential strikes.
“If we’re able to get that clearly telegraphed in IATSE, get members behind that, we have a real chance of getting what we want,” he said. Given the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes this year, “the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] will not be spoiling for a fight… That’s why we want to have these conversations.”
The webinar is open to all IATSE members.