Credit: Los Angeles Times

Trouble in Tinseltown: the fallout of film crews threatening picketing

By Patrick Gaffey

In October 2021 blue-collar film workers threatened to bring Hollywood to a standstill through strikes. Patrick explores what became of the worker’s cries of mistreatment.

This autumn, the negotiations between IATSE, the union representing film workers in the USA and Canada, and AMPTP, the association representing production companies such as Netflix, Disney, and Amazon, went on for weeks, with no clear end in sight. On 3 October, 99% of IATSE members voted to go on strike if these negotiations failed to reach a solution. However, the strike was narrowly averted on 18 October, to the disappointment of some members, who see no other possibility for improvement. The two parties are now at the last stages of the bargaining process, with a deal to be voted on by the union’s membership.

IATSE represent film and television workers “below the line” – effectively everyone on set except writers, directors, actors, and producers. Their membership ranges from hair stylists and coffee servers, to script editors and accountants. The union’s contract with AMPTP expired in September, and producing a new one has caused difficulties. AMPTP claim that streaming represents a “new” and “experimental” form of media, which has not proven to be economically viable. Therefore, they do not believe they should have to follow the same regulations as regular television associations on wages, pensions, and shift lengths. This has angered the union and its workers, who argue that companies such as Netflix – with a market value of $281bn – prove that the “experimental” drives profits.

“[AMPTP] do not believe they should have to follow the same regulations as regular television associations on wages, pensions, and shift lengths. This has angered the union and its workers…”

Those represented by IATSE work long hours for low pay – they rarely work less than twelve hours a day, and are almost never paid a living wage. In a world away from the glamorous lifestyle traditionally associated with Hollywood, they are frequently denied breaks to go to the bathroom or eat. They face major issues relating to “turnaround times” (the space between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next). Production companies are required to provide eight-hour turnaround times, less than necessary for an adequate night of sleep, and for catering to commuting hours. Even this rule is often unenforced, and turnaround times of as little as four hours are not uncommon. This level of sleep deprivation can be deeply unhealthy and even fatal, as was the case with Gary Joe Truck, a crew member from the drama series Longmire killed in a tiredness-related car crash while driving home in 2014. 

Streaming services such as Netflix and Disney+ have boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, as millions turn to an escape from a troubled reality. The film business was one of the first to reopen during the lockdowns of 2020, and employees with health issues had to risk their life working through such an unsafe time. Yet this major increase in companies’ profits has not resulted in any wage increase for most of the workers, who keep entire projects afloat. For IATSE, these circumstances mean that improvements in wages and working standards are essential, and they are unwilling to compromise with the streaming companies who say otherwise.Had the strike taken place, all ongoing projects would have been shut down, an unprecedented event in Hollywood’s history. With this averted, the negotiations are unlikely to have a major effect on the viewing habits of consumers, at least in the short term. However, this should change how we view media, and understand the painstaking efforts that go into making it. We must never forget that the films and series which provide us comfort are the products of workers who deserve our utmost solidarity.


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