Interview by E. REED

Republished from Red Flag Boston.

Union film workers across the country have been in tough negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), film and television bosses for months. The union leadership of International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) called for a nationwide strike authorization to try and force concessions from AMPTP—ending 14 to 16-hour work shifts, ending turnarounds of less than 10 hours, and greater residuals from streaming media. Workers voted to authorize a strike by 98 percent.

But the union leadership ended up coming to a rotten tentative agreement with the bosses that only increased wages by 3 percent—less than inflation. Now, many workers are talking about voting down the tentative agreement, going back to the bargaining table, and even leading wildcat strikes (i.e., led and organized by rank-and-file workers, unauthorized by their union leaders).

A Massachusetts member of IATSE spoke to Red Flag Boston about the issues facing film workers leading up to the strike authorization.

What are IATSE members fighting for? Why are these issues important to you?

IATSE members are fighting for reasonable rest periods on and off set, which includes time for meal breaks during the day as well as adequate time off between work shifts and over the weekend. The shooting schedule of a production can be grueling, and allowing workers time to decompress and spend time with friends and family, or just giving us enough time for a good night sleep, is crucial to our overall well being. We are also fighting for sustainable wage and benefit increases, especially when it comes to streaming services that still have lower pay scales, even though their budgets and profitability have exploded over the years. For the past five years I have almost exclusively worked on projects for streaming services, doing the same type of work, but getting paid less than if I was working on a feature film. Now that this type of “New Media” content dominates the industry, it is time for these companies to pay comparable wages and benefits to workers.

What have working conditions been like during COVID? What resistance has there been?

Working conditions during COVID vary greatly depending on the production. Regular testing and access to PPE have been good on my jobs, but I have not always felt that productions have been forthcoming with information regarding positive cases and contact tracing. The promise of more reasonable work days, scheduling 10-hour shoot days instead of 12 during the pandemic, seems to be far less common than it should. Many productions are no longer breaking for lunch, but instead providing food and encouraging crew to go at their leisure. For those who cannot break away during shooting, this practice has meant eating on the go and working straight through a 10-hour or longer day.

How did coming back to work after COVID shutdown your work affect your willingness to vote to strike?

I think the AMPTP assumed our members would be less willing to strike after such a long period of unemployment due to COVID, but I think COVID had the opposite effect. The added stress of the pandemic has made me, and I think a lot of our members, less willing to accept unfair and unsafe practices that have long been commonplace in this industry. Members of 36 locals representing 60,000 workers voted to authorize the strike. 89.66% of eligible voters participated, and 98.68% voted yes. I think after COVID we are more unified than ever.

What kind of decision-making exists for rank-and-file IATSE members, beyond the strike authorization, to shape and direct the struggle?

Our local has had a virtual meeting every week for the past month and a half. They are mostly informative meetings followed by a long discussion period. This allows us to speak with each other and to some of our Union representatives.

How can people support you? Are there plans for picket lines?

There were plans to picket at the locations of all projects currently in production, though as of last night a tentative agreement has been reached and a strike has been averted.

What’s the overall mood among Massachusetts IATSE members, would you say?

The overall mood of our members seems to be one of hopefulness and solidarity. We were not looking forward to going without a paycheck, but we were willing to do what it took to secure a better future for ourselves.