Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023
The biggest industry strike among Hollywood production workers since World War II may be impending. On October 4, 2021, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) announced that members overwhelming granted the union’s president the authorization to strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The crux of the demands by the union revolves around increasing workers’ quality of life. Average working days consist of fourteen hours or more, with meal breaks often avoided, leaving little to no personal life outside of the industry.
Who is IATSE?
Founded in 1893, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) began fighting for the rights of entertainment industry workers. “Below-the-line” workers, such as camera operators, makeup artists, hair stylists, and electricians, comprise the 150,000 union members across the United States and Canada. Although these workers are not in front of the camera, they are indispensable in the production of any television show or film. More than 360 independent local unions across thirteen geographical districts make up the powerhouse union. For over 125 years, IATSE has fought for appropriate wages and hours, safe working conditions, and job stability, among other things, for its members.
Beginning October 1, 2021, approximately 60,000 IATSE workers voted to authorize the union to call a strike. The polls demonstrated an overwhelming support to strike, with 98.68% of voters saying yes to authorization. The same 60,000 workers that voted to authorize the strike are the members that would go on strike if the decision is made. The West Coast IATSE locals would make up 47,000 workers, with another 15,000 members from Georgia, Louisiana, and New Mexico.
Why are IATSE members preparing for a strike?
Although wages are important, the workers’ quality of life is the crux of the potential strike. Most, if not all workers, are expected to put in fourteen hour days during production. Hanny Eisen, a single mother and make-up artist union member, wakes up at 3 a.m. every weekday to prepare for her and her children’s day ahead. To pay her bills, she sacrifices sleep, hobbies, and most importantly, family time. Eisen states she is fortunate to have work but cannot turn down a gig if she wants to make ends meet.
The union demands a ten hour minimum turnaround, the time between production days, to begin clawing back some work-life balance from the industry. “Fraturday” is an infamous late-Friday shift that ends early morning Saturday, which all workers dread. To combat such tactics, the union is seeking a minimum fifty-four hour turnaround on weekends, specifically ruling out a Fraturday shift.
Additionally, the union demands heightened meal penalties. Meal penalties are paid to workers when productions do not offer the workers a meal break after six hours of working. Typically, meal penalties begin at $8.50 per half-hour without a meal and incrementally increase until reaching $13.50. Workers can rack up hundreds of dollars of extra cash per week, but the mental and physical toll of laboring on an empty stomach is often not worth it. As such, the union wants higher meal penalties to force production to actually take meal breaks.
The boom of “new media”, commonly referred to streaming services, also impacts the demands of IATSE. Max Schwartz, a studio electrical lighting technician and union member, describes how new media impacts his wages: “ ‘New media’ has us as low as $15 an hour for the same job I would be paid $45 an hour for.” With the dramatic increase of streaming services over the past decade, it is obvious why workers are so angry.
Does the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibit current policies?
In 1939, Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as a vital aspect of the New Deal. FLSA specifies hourly minimum wage, child labor regulation, and overtime compensation for work exceeding forty hours per week. There are exceptions to the overtime regulations for certain industries and levels of employment, including independent contractors.
An interview with a current IATSE worker discussed whether union members may be covered FLSA. The FLSA requirements can apply to some members depending on classifications of the following factors: state law, local union requirements, and skill of trade. The interviewee went on to explain that regardless of a worker’s exempt status, it is common practice for production companies to discourage correct timekeeping practices. For example, a worker may work sixty-five hours in a week but production, either implicitly or explicitly, says to only log forty hours.
Without surprise, many prominent actors and actresses have stepped up to show support of IATSE. 120 members of Congress matched this support, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Congressional members sent a letter to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), advising the association to negotiate in good faith with IATSE. The letter highlights the sacrifices workers have made for the industry, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers risked their health and safety to ensure production did not stop and their sacrifices should be addressed with dignity.
What are the next steps?
Although union members granted the union’s president the authorization to strike against the AMPTP, a strike will not likely occur right away. Many believe having the power to call a strike is the leverage needed for IATSE to swing negotiations in its favor. Presumably, two to three weeks of negotiations will follow strike authorization. Even so, if AMPTP does not budge on work hours or compensation, it is unlikely that IATSE will hesitate to strike.