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“Emotions Are Running High”: IATSE Members Await Fine Print of Studio Deal Averting Strike

The Hollywood Reporter logo The Hollywood Reporter 10/18/2021 Carolyn Giardina

As talks went down to the wire over the weekend of Oct. 15 ahead of a strike deadline that would’ve resulted in an unprecedented industry walkout, studio negotiators and leadership at a major Hollywood labor guild said that they had a deal. But, without seeing the fine print, some members of the union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), are concerned that the agreement doesn’t bring the sweeping changes they felt were needed.

While IATSE and the studio negotiators of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) reached a tentative contract deal on Oct. 16 that narrowly averted a strike that had been scheduled to begin on Monday,  the reaction was decidedly mixed, with some members already calling loudly for members to vote “no” on ratification of the three-year Basic Agreement.

On social media, a vocal section of IATSE members voiced caution about the deal announcement. But even offline, “I’m hearing really mixed things,” says writers assistant and Local 871 member Amy Thurlow of colleagues’ reactions. “I think negotiations are very emotional, especially the issues that are coming up and the stories that have been shared.” Adds fellow Local 871 member and script coordinator Colby Bachiller, “Emotions are running high because this does affect so many people’s lives.”

A Change.org petition started by a self-described Local 728 member to vote “no” to ratify the tentative agreement has, as of press time, over 1,500 signatures. “We gave them 98 percent authorization to Strike for Radical change. Our leaders said they reach an agreement and to go back to work. The outline they sent was scant on details and doesn’t nearly cover our demands. We want our leaders back at the table and put a strike back on the table. The time for change is now,” the petition reads.

A memorandum of agreement is now being drawn up with the details of the tentative agreement and would then go to the members of the 13 Locals for a ratification vote; members say it could take weeks for them to know the full details of the agreement. The date of the ratification vote hasn’t yet been set, but at that point individual members will vote, and then each Local will cast its delegate votes in a system similar to that of the U.S. Electoral College. Local 600 (International Cinematographers Guild) and Local 700 (Motion Picture Editors Guild) are the largest of the 13 locals and carry the most delegates. A union source expects leaders of the 13 Locals to recommend ratification to the 13 Locals boards and members.

Regarding the early response to the tentative agreement, a union representative on Monday suggested members were reacting to the announcement of, rather than the terms of, the agreement. The source adds that IATSE intends to distribute and publicize more details as soon as possible, though the source didn’t indicate a timeframe.

Further information about the tentative deal is being shared with union members as Locals that work under the Basic Agreement hold board and member meetings. (Several Locals already held meetings discussing the deal on Oct. 17.) A letter from IATSE to union members on Oct. 16 was light on details, but broadly said key aspects of the tentative deal were establishing a “living wage,” ameliorating wages and working conditions on streaming projects, establishing 3 percent annual increases of scale wages that are retroactive and “employer funded benefits” during the contract, increasing meal penalties, solidifying daily 10-hour turnarounds for all and 54- and 32-hour weekend rest periods. The union had made living wages, rest periods, “sustainable benefits” and improved streaming compensation the key goals of these negotiations, though not all of the details of these areas have been revealed to members.

Several member sources who have been initially briefed on the deal say that the tentative agreement increases minimum rates of some of the lowest-paid members of IATSE from around $16 an hour currently to a rate that will begin at $23.50 an hour and gradually increase to $26 an hour by the third year of the contract. During negotiations, some union members advocated for at least $25 an hour with a 60-hour guarantee on social media.

Broadly speaking, a union insider tells The Hollywood Reporter that the deal includes additional increased hourly contribution rates (rates vary) that employers would make to the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans. The source echoed what other IATSE members initially believe, which is that new or enhanced streaming residuals are not a part of this tentative agreement.

As union members await more information, those who spoke to THR are split about the details they’ve learned about the tentative agreement so far, and many say they need more information before making a decision on their vote. “I have full faith in our membership that if it’s a bad deal, we will vote it down and if it’s a good deal, we will ratify it,” says Thurlow. “I think it remains to be seen what the actual deal is on the table.”

“My initial thoughts are it’s not great, but it’s better than nothing, which is what they [the AMPTP] offered us three months ago,” says costumer and Local 705 member Eric Johnson. “It is, I believe, the best we can get out of the other side.”

Max Schwartz, a studio electrical lighting technician and the Local 728 Young Workers Committee co-chair, notes that he’s still waiting on his Local to give a full picture of the agreement. For now, he writes in a statement, “While people may argue that this is a historic victory, and for some Locals like 871 it is, it fails to live up to the situation before us. Never again in history will our union have the leverage against mega-corporations like it has now to create deep, sustainable structural change to the film industry that reflects value and decency to the people that generate their wealth, and whose lived experience gifts the AMPTP the talent that makes their projects so successful.” Schwartz says he will advocate for members to vote “no” unless he hears from leadership that “we have won proper streaming residuals for our healthcare and pension plans.”

Several members say they believe there’s a divide between what a subset of members and negotiators hoped to emerge from the bargaining table this year. COVID-19 refocused the priorities of many workers, and as negotiations wore on over the summer, IATSE members began getting increasingly candid about difficult work conditions and poor pay on the Instagram account IA Stories and via the hashtag #IALivingWage. As the union began preparing to strike while talks stalled, media outlets, union advocates and members lumped its actions in with larger labor trends, such as the “Great Resignation” (describing a recent surge in worker resignations) and “Striketober” (characterizing the over 100,000 workers that are striking or threatened to strike in October).

Editor and Local 700 member Kyle Gilman says he experienced “a real sense of whiplash” when the deal was announced just as he was texting fellow Editors Guild members to remind them to sign up for picketing shifts. Describing IATSE negotiators’ initial aims as “extremely modest goals” that met “completely unreasonable counter-offers from the AMPTP,” he writes in a statement, “It seems that most of the things IATSE negotiators wanted were finally granted as part of this deal, which must have felt like a win at the negotiating table, but when we were asked to authorize a strike it was reasonable for us to expect that some spectacular gains were possible.”

Sound mixer and Local 695 member Victor P. Bouzi says that members seem to be split between those who have faith in union leadership and want to wait and see what the deal holds and others who don’t feel the union’s demands were strong enough and need to take advantage of a historic moment: “This is not a morality tale, I’m not accusing folks of being bad people or not caring, but there is a disconnect between what IATSE negotiators are calling a ‘win win’ TA [tentative agreement] and what younger IATSE members are calling weak,” he says in a statement.

If a strike had been called, it would have impacted projects produced under the union’s and the AMPTP’s Basic Agreement, Area Standards Agreement and Videotape Agreement, which have all expired, and prompted around 60,000 workers to withhold their labor. (The Area Standards Agreement is still being negotiated, IATSE said on Saturday.) AMPTP president Carol Lombardini was the lead negotiator for the AMPTP, while IATSE international president Matthew D. Loeb and international VP Michael Miller led IATSE’s end of the talks. They had been back in negotiations since Oct. 5, when IATSE returned to the table armed with a strike authorization vote overwhelmingly approved by their members.

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