Streaming has become a huge part of the entertainment industry. This weekend, the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) will hold a vote on whether to authorize a strike, something that the union has never done. If the strike happens TV, film and possibly Broadway will shut down. The vote is expected to pass by an overwhelming margin and at least 60,000 workers will be out of a job.
Though many feel there is no sympathy with IATSE, when you hear why they will be strikIng your heart will soften. Many production workers are exhausted by the long hours. As one member told me; “I am afraid for others an hour before working and an hour after as I am so tired and am afraid of falling asleep at the wheel and hurting someone while driving home and to work. Sometimes the turn around is less than 3 hours.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has offered some tweaks to the schedule, but not enough and the rest of the changes sought by union are going unanswered.
A strike will be devastating to both sides.
Though money is definitely part of it, the primary issues relates to workers’ quality of life. The industry has long expected workers to put in 14-hour days during production, if not longer most time it is 20 hours. The workers downtime between shows is nil. The production companies arei seeking a 10-hour minimum “turnaround, the union wants 8, plus an hour each way to commute to set. S
The unions are also seeking a minimum 54-hour turnaround on weekends. Normally a Friday shift ends on Saturday morning. Also meals are being ignored, so the union wants to dramatically increase meal penalties. For many workers, a production will have to pay $8.50 for the first half-hour without a meal, $11 for the second half-hour, and then $13.50 for each half-hour after that. Those payments can work out to hundreds of extra dollars a week. What the unions really want is to have to force studios into actually taking those meal breaks, rather than just budgeting in the penalties.
The studios are not open to raising up meal penalties. They believe the workers simply want to pocket the extra money. They have suggested the use of “French hours,” in which crews can vote to forgo breaks and penalties in exchange for a shorter work day. The unions are uninterested in that.
When working on a streaming service the workers have been given a lower pay scale for small streaming services, including Apple TV Plus and Paramount Plus. Under an agreement reached in 2009, services with fewer than 20 million subscribers can pay lower wages to crews. This was intended to help grow the streaming industry, but now streaming is clearly established and the discount has become a burden on the men and women who help build these services. AMPTP is willing to increase wage rates by 18% but not pay more residuals into the pension and health plans.
There are three contracts in play — the Basic Agreement, the Area Standards Agreement and the Videotape Agreement. The Basic Agreement applies to the 13 “West Coast” IATSE locals, which represent about 47,000 workers. Three of those locals are nationwide: the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600, the Motion Picture Editors Guild and the Art Directors Guild. The Area Standards Agreement covers another 15,000 to 20,000 workers at 23 locals around the country, including production hubs such as Georgia, Louisiana and New Mexico. Those workers are also voting on a strike authorization. The Videotape Agreement covers certain TV shows, like talk shows, reality shows, game shows, or “Dancing With the Stars.” The Basic Agreement and the Area Standards Agreement expired on Sept. 10, and the Videotape Agreement expires on Thursday night. All together, those contracts cover the vast majority of film and TV production across the country. If a strike is called, all work covered under those contracts would cease.
There is an exception for HBO, Showtime, BET and Starz. In the mid-1990s, as HBO was first getting into self-produced scripted productions, their shoots are mostly non-union. IATSE was able to negotiate a nationwide contract for HBO, separate from the Basic Agreement, with lower rates. The other premium cable outlets then signed similar agreements. Those agreements have until Dec. 31, 2022. Since those contracts are in force, those workers will not be on strike. The contracts do not cover every show on those networks only productions made by the networks, or their affiliates, for “first exhibition” on those networks.
There are also separate contracts for commercials and for low-budget films (less than $15 million), which expire next year, and which would not be affected by a strike.
The IATSE pension and health plans are funded out of residual payments from the studios, but those residuals have fallen as the industry shifts to streaming. According to the AMPTP, there is now a $400 million deficit in the plans, and the AMPTP has offered a proposal to cover the vast majority of that shortfall. Part of their proposed solution involves increasing the minimum hours required to qualify for the pension plan from 400 hours per year to 950 hours per year, though the union has resisted that. The health plan threshold — 400 hours every six months — would remain the same. For those who qualify, the health plan is quite generous, with zero premiums for the employee and very low premiums for family members.
According to Varity many members of Local 871 make just above the $14 minimum wage in California. Writers room assistants make as little as $16 an hour; assistant production office coordinators, $15.66; art department coordinators, $16.82; script coordinators, $17.64. The AMPTP has offered increases of 10% to 19% for those classifications, but IATSE is seeking a more substantial increase to reach a “livable wage.”