What is the IATSE strike – and why it matters (beyond Hollywood) | The State of Cinema

25 November, 2021

What is the IATSE strike – and why it matters (beyond Hollywood) | The State of Cinema

Workers’ rights in the cinema industry are much too rarely discussed in concrete terms – both in the local, Romanian sphere, where we constantly speak about the “precariat” without entering into details, as well as in the international one. These past few months, however, have seen the Hollywood industry facing the possibility of a mammoth strike initiated by members of the IATSE syndicate – which was avoided at the last moment, but had it happened, it would have had the power to grind the whole American film industry at a halt, similarly to the 2007 strike of the Writers Guild of America. Given the fact that this gigantic workers’ movement, which was on everybody’s lips between August and October across the ocean, was barely discussed in Romania, I decided to pen a little primer about the averted strike, which did however shine a powerful light on questions regarding the payment of cinema workers, work safety, working hours, as well as many other important issues regarding the workers’ rights in the film industry, which are just as relevant and valid even beyond the borders of Northern America.

What is IATSE?

IATSE – that is, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts is one of the biggest organizations that represents the interest of workers in the entertainment industry, active in the United States of America and in Canada, and is organized in 13 geographical districts composed of numerous local chapters. It was founded in 1893, functioning continuously for almost 130 years – and represents a vast variety of technicians and artists that are active in fields such as theater, the live events industry, but especially film and television. At the moment, over 150,000 professionals are IATSE members (a number which has doubled over the course of the last 30 years) – and the union comprises organizations such as the International Cinematographers Guild (8,400 members, founded in 1926), the Motion Picture Editors Guild (6,000+ members, founded in 1937), the United Scenic Artists (3,800 members, founded in 1895) and the Art Directors Guild (cca. 3,000 members, founded in 1937).

IATSE wasn’t always a good ally and representative of its workers from the film industry, a fact which, in time, led to the rise of rival syndicates (such as CSU, the Conference of Studio Unions, which was active in the mid-forties). Throughout the twenties and thirties, the de facto leader of the union was a Chicago gangster, Willie Bioff, known for his violent tactics, who was often bribed by Hollywood studio executives to maintain a calm atmosphere amongst the member-workers. The forties have Richard F. Walsh as the syndicate’s leader, whose tenure at IATSE will last until 1974, a period which coincides with the famous purge of communist-leaning workers from the industry – which was partly implemented by the union’s international representative, Roy Brewer, in collaboration with actor (and future president) Ronald Reagan.

Why did IATSE threaten a general strike and what happened next?

Although the beginning of the movement can be attributed to the failure of negotiations pertaining the collective work contract between the IATSE and the AMPTP (the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), which surpassed their initial deadline set for the 31st of July 2021, the seeds behind the movement had been present for a long time, set against the background of the profound crisis that the industry experienced throughout 2020. Many professionals were already vocal about their displeasure with low payments, work safety and working hours/rest time – their work days often stretching beyond 10-12 hours a day, and oftentimes without free days or weekends during production time. The ultimate breakdown of negotiations in September, where IATSE demanded for a raise on minimum salaries, on the minimum time span between work days and the obligation to offer meal breaks, as well as the inclusion of new media productions under the terms of the contract, was just the final spark.

From this point onward, IATSE started to threaten with its first massive, nation-wide strike in its 128 years of existence – and organized a vote to ratify this decision which was attended by all of its local chapters. The results were overwhelmingly affirmative: 89.66% of members participated in the vote, and 98.68% (!) of them agreed to authorize a strike. An impressive roster of name came out in support of this decision: from progressive politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to famous filmmakers and actors, many of them known for their work in the field of human rights (Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Ben Stiller and Seth Rogen), as well as other organizations/syndicates – SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild), WGA (the Writers Guild of America), DGA (the Directors Guild of America), as well as the British syndicate BECTU and its Australian counterpart, MEAA.

Talks between IATSE and AMPTP were reprised at the beginning of October, under the specter of the strike which was set to begin on the 18th of October. Two days before the deadline, an agreement between the two parties was announced, which included a minimum ten-hour break between work shifts, weekends that last between 32 and 54 hours, as well as a raise on the smallest salaries; still, many members did not agree to these terms and condemned them as being insufficient. The agreement was ratified on the 15th of November – and like any American vote, more delegates had a positive vote than the mean number of members themselves: 256 delegates (to 188), versus 50.4% percent of members that voted against ratification. Even so, for the moment, the strike seems to have been averted.

What would have been the size of the strike, had it taken place?

In short, the IATSE strike would have been the biggest coordinated protest movement by Hollywood workers since 1945, when a strike that had lasted for over six months, led by the CSU (through its set decorator members) led to the closure of almost 60 of ongoing productions on its first day – the 12th of March 1945, with 10,500 workers walking out from work. (The protest culminated with the infamous Hollywood Black Friday when, on the 5th of October, a gathering of strikers that were picketing the studios turned violent as they tried to prevent replacement workers from going to their jobs; in time, these events were used to justify the “Red Scare” and the ratification of the Taft-Hartley Act, which severely limited the power of syndicates.)

It’s estimated that around 60,000 IATSE members who are associated with the film and television industries would have taken part in this protest action, which would have practically paralyzed the Hollywood film production, a number so massive that it would have forced distributors and broadcasters to rely purely on pre-recorded material in order to keep on functioning. Amongst IATSE chapters, numbers 600 (dedicated to cinematographers), 700 (editors) and 800 (art directors) are nation-wide – and are those which have the largest power to disrupt the audiovisual production chain, save for a few paid subscription services with whom IATSE has a separate contract.

Just like other strikes in the history of the United States, the protest of film industry workers coincides with the larger social context, in which a wave of strikes and workers’ movements washed over society in the aftermath of a major crisis – if, in between 1945 and 1946, they had to do with the post-WWII context, the current wave rides on the coattails of the crisis set into motion by the pandemic.

The Halyna Hutchins case – an avoidable (and symptomatic) tragedy 

Halyna Hutchins. Photo via IATSE
Halyna Hutchins. Photo via IATSE

The tragic death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust was written about across the entire globe – but beyond the news of the shocking and horrific manner of her death by accidental shooting, information regarding the inner workings of the film started to surface, shining an even stronger light on the topic of work safety in the cinema industry. Her death mirrored a similar incident that took place in 2014, when camera assistant Sarah Jones lost her life after being hit by a train while her team was shooting a scene of Midnight Rider on an active railroad trestle, and several others were hurt – leading to the Safety for Sarah movement, just as Hutchins’ death inspired a petition that asks for the ban of real firearms on film sets.

Just a few hours before the accident that took Hutchins’ (herself an IATSE member) life, several crew members left the set of Rust in order to protest the production’s precarious safety measures, as well as the individual conditions offered to workers. Not only had there been several incidents with the gun that ended up killing Hutchins, which is (also) attributable to the lack of experience of the film’s armorer, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, nor was there a medic on set, nor adequate anti-Covid measures and sufficient safety trainings, the production was also burdened by problems relating to work hours and accommodation – some of the team members having been forced to drive 50 miles to get to work and then back home on a daily basis. (Hutchins, who was unaware of the walk-out, had stayed behind to protect the livelihood of others working on the production, according to certain sources). All of the seven professionals who left the set were IATSE members, and were replaced by non-union workers during the day.

Why does the strike matter beyond the walls of Hollywood?

As I mentioned in the introduction, the issues raised by the IATSE strike are relevant to the entire global film industry – and spotlights highly important topics regarding workers’ rights. It has long been accepted in the industry that work days last way beyond the standard limit of eight hours, that the salaries of beginners and certain categories only cover their basic needs (and sometimes, not even that), that break days are almost never a thing during production.

The situation in Romania, in particular, is worrisome – especially since the biggest syndicate which should represent its industry, the Romanian Filmmakers’ Union (UCIN), seems much busier with organizing its yearly awards gala and its various other events and its publishing branch, than with representing the guild’s work interests. Of course, members do receive a special work pension after retiring (amongst other benefits), which is extremely welcome in an industry that is dominated by determined contracts and intellectual property contracts – but the fact that, at the moment, the Romanian industry’s power to collectively negotiate is practically non-existent should raise some questions (if not even outright alarm signals). Of course, UCIN was intensely criticized over the past years, and not for naught – but the fewer new, young members the syndicate (the only one that could be truly representative in the country’s industry) attracts as a direct result of this discourse, the possibility of its structural reform becomes more and more unlikely. It’s imperative that young cinema professionals in Romania organize, one way or another – since their future, already so profoundly affected by the pandemic, is as uncertain (beyond the certainty of precarity) and murky as it never was in the past 10, even 20, maybe even 30 years.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.