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Hollywood's Working Class to Producers: We're Overdue Our Fair Share

An image of a logo from IATSE with the words "This picture is made under the jurisdiction of IATSE."
(Courtesy IATSE)
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Will Hollywood’s union of below-the-line workers go on strike?

It’s a question that could be answered any second. But the current impasse itself was years — if not decades — in the making.

In results announced Monday, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees voted overwhelmingly (with more than 98% of ballots cast in support) to authorize a show business strike. Negotiators for both IASTE and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the bargaining unit for the studios, networks, streamers and production companies — continue to try to hammer out a new contract.

Even if a new agreement materializes, the underlying causes for the impasse won’t disappear. IATSE members and a labor expert say that while the contract dispute hinges on specific definitions such as wages and working conditions, the real disagreement is much broader and can’t be spelled out in a contract: an ever-expanding chasm between media Goliaths and working-class Davids.

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“Every worker in America deserves a fair share of that profit. And part of what's going on now is ‘what constitutes a fair share?’” says Steve Ross, a USC history professor who specializes in Hollywood history and labor. “We no longer have a situation where workers are getting a fair share. When an executive is getting $35 million as a bonus, and people are going on welfare, there's something wrong there.”

The IATSE strike vote, which gives union leaders the right to order a work stoppage, is ominous and unprecedented: IATSE is not known for its activism, unlike other Hollywood unions, such as the Writers Guild of America. It has not authorized a national strike in its 128-year existence.

But its members — who include cinematographers, editors, costume designers, and hair and makeup artists — say they no longer can get by on table scraps while studio bosses, A-list actors and prominent producers cash exponentially larger paychecks.

“For me, I really want to see our wages go up. Right now we definitely don't make a living wage, especially if you live in Los Angeles,” said Olga Lexell, who works as a writers’ assistant and script coordinator, distributing scripts to the production of a TV show. “And it's kind of nuts because in a lot of these jobs, you're basically on call 24/7. I know I work a lot of long hours. It would be nice to be compensated for that time.”

I think it's really hard when you start to see above-the-line pay just going up and up and up and up.
— Andrea Wheeler
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Some entertainment companies, especially streamers, are raking in profits. In its most recent quarter, Netflix reported $1.85 billion dollars in operating income. The Walt Disney Co., which fired tens of thousands of theme park workers during the pandemic, banked $1.32 billion in operating income in the same quarter.

“I think we've just hit a point where we want to feel like our contribution is seen as valuable,” said Andrea Wheeler. She works with costume designers to build and fit actor wardrobes.

“For years, they've been tightening their belts and it's shorter timelines, fewer crew, higher expectations of quality. And all of these budget-cutting practices have always been on our backs. And I think it's really hard when you start to see above-the-line pay just going up and up and up and up. And you're just sort of like, wow, ‘But I'm losing money.’”

Ali Noyes is a production coordinator. She heads the administrative office for a TV show or a movie. Like Wheeler, she says the math doesn’t add up, especially when it comes to overtime work and pay, where the open secret is, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."

“A lot of people don't get overtime if they work above the guaranteed number of hours each week, myself included,” Noyes said. “Most production coordinators are on a deal like that. So I know a lot of production coordinators who will work 70, 80 hour weeks and only still get paid for 60.”

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What’s more, many IATSE jobs are temporary gigs — it’s one production for a few months, then nothing for just as much time.

“The problem is... very few people are working 52 weeks. And so you've got to squeeze in a year's income in a number of jobs, not in full time jobs,” says USC’s Ross.

“So that makes the stakes a lot higher. And what we also need to understand is executives, when a strike occurs, are still being paid. They are not going to suffer. But workers are not getting any money when they go on strike, it's a very serious thing. Because it's not just about the value of struggle. It's about people having suddenly to go into their savings.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a statement that it “remains committed to reaching an agreement that will keep the industry working. We deeply value our IATSE crew members and are committed to working with them to avoid shutting down the industry at such a pivotal time.”

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John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.