Everything We Know (and Don’t) About the Averted IATSE Strike

Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

At any moment, thousands of entertainment workers could walk off the job in the largest coordinated labor action in Hollywood since World War II. Talk shows would freeze in time, picketers would encircle Burbank’s back lots, and movie sets would collect dust as the people who power the entertainment industry collectively suspend their work. I’m not sure if the American public understands the sheer pandemonium an IATSE-authorized strike could wreak, nor is it cognizant of the baffling conditions the below-the-line workers of the TV business operate under on a day-to-day basis.

IATSE stands for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Founded in 1893, it’s one of the longest-running labor organizations in the world, and it covers over 150,000 workers across basically every facet of the performing arts: television, concerts, trade shows, Broadway, and more. Most people who work behind the scenes in entertainment, from ushers to animators, are represented by IATSE, in the same way screenwriters are represented by the WGA. As of this week, the union has approved a work stoppage if the ongoing negotiations between IATSE and AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, comprising bigwigs like Disney, Paramount, and Universal) over a contract renewal break down — and reports over the last few months of negotiations have suggested this is possible. It goes without saying that if this workforce (estimated to be around 60,000 people) suspends its labor, much of the United States’ contribution to the global content apparatus will cease to function, sending Tinseltown into uncharted territory as the backlog of unreleased film and television slowly dries up. The stakes are high, which is why we’ve put together this guide to understanding the demands of IATSE and what to expect from a potential lockout.

How did it come to this?

That’s a complicated question. Basically, 13 West Coast IATSE chapters and the AMPTP have been at the bargaining table all summer after their previous contract expired at the end of July. The union is looking for a three-year basic agreement that addresses a variety of grievances, including a higher minimum wage, humane off-hours between shifts, and increased pay for jobs on nonbroadcast streaming shows, which the Los Angeles Times notes are often saddled with rates and residuals that, IATSE claims, are “unfairly discounted” and bereft of pension hours due to their classification as “New Media.” (Scarlett Johansson would agree!) Thus far, the two sides have failed to gain any traction, with IATSE president Matthew Loeb openly questioning if a deal with producers is even feasible.

“We are fighting for core union principles: A living wage for the lowest paid among us, health and safety for those members who suffer abuse working unsafe hours or days without breaks, and the fulfillment of an unkept promise to share streaming success,” Loeb wrote in late August. “If the employers refuse to engage in substantive negotiations, refuse to change the culture by managing the workflow, and refuse to put human interests before corporate profits, the failure to reach an agreement will be their choice.”

On September 20, Loeb’s warning came to fruition. After AMPTP informed IATSE that it would not respond to the union’s latest proposal, IATSE leadership asked its members to authorize a strike. On October 4, union membership approved the stoppage by a 98 percent margin, with a massive 89 percent voter turnout. AMPTP now understands exactly what’s at risk if it can’t broker a deal. The threat has become real.

What’s the reaction from the industry?

You will not be surprised to learn that most celebrities are on the side of the stagehands here, because seriously, who wants to throw in their lot with a bunch of movie-house CEOs? Big names like Seth Rogen, Ben Stiller, Cynthia Nixon, and Susan Sarandon have all voiced their support for IATSE. Aidy Bryant flaunted a union-branded shirt at the season premiere of SNL. The WGA East has offered its solidarity, and the American Cinema Editors, though not a trade union, is actively encouraging IATSE’s members to strike.

But the starkest evidence of anger in the industry might be the IA_Stories Instagram page, which has racked up over 140,000 followers and frequently disperses anonymous disclosures from the grind. “I’m on a show right now that’s consistently pushing 17+ hour days,” reads one. “We’ve had three PAs fall asleep at the wheel.” It’s pretty grim, and has also served as fuel for the movement. The Hollywood Reporter quoted one anonymous Motion Picture Editors Guild member who believes the internet has fostered a tighter sense of harmony among Hollywood workers: “Because of social media, people are really saying, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one going through this.’”

Okay, that sounds bad. But what’s going to happen? Are they really going to strike?

Nobody knows for sure, but conventional wisdom says that both IATSE and AMPTP will work something out before everything goes nuclear. The Los Angeles Times notes that the workers have a lot of leverage right now; studios are eager to ramp up production after a COVID-shortened schedule, and that will be strictly impossible if all the grips are picketing outside. Loeb released a new statement Monday that effectively said the future hinges on the AMPTP: “I hope that the studios will see and understand the resolve of our members,” it reads. “The ball is in their court. If they want to avoid a strike, they will return to the bargaining table and make us a reasonable offer.”

Variety reports that as of Thursday, October 7, AMPTP conceded to some of IATSE’s demands concerning shorter production hours. However, an agent of IATSE Local 487 told members a contract is still “a ways off.”

Over 60,000 IATSE members agreed to move forward with a strike on Monday, October 18, if no suitable agreement was reached, giving negotiations four days to make a deal. “We will continue bargaining with the producers this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement that addresses core issues, such as reasonable rest periods, meal breaks, and a living wage for those on the bottom of the wage scale,” tweeted IATSE president Matthew D. Loeb. “However, the current pace of bargaining doesn’t reflect any sense of urgency. Without an end date, we could keep talking forever.”

If IATSE and AMPTP can’t find a way to establish détente, well …

Is there an IATSE strike update?

The 2021 IATSE strike was averted by a deal announced on Saturday, October 16. However, many members of IATSE say they will vote against ratifying the new contract for not adequately addressing the working conditions on set. The tentative agreement provides a 54-hour weekend and ten-hour humane turnaround time between shifts for all workers on all productions. Employees were fighting to make wider changes to the conditions on set, described as unsustainable. Work will continue in the weeks it takes to write up the contract and plan a ratification vote. On social media, frustration with the deal continues to grow, aggregated onto accounts like @IA_Stories and @IA_members on Instagram. “A 54 hour weekend plus 10 hour turnaround four nights a week comes out to 94 hours for sleep and ourselves,” one anonymous crew member wrote to @IA_Stories. “This leaves 74 hour work weeks. That’s it. The contract is for a 74 hour work week. Why would we want that?” In their Electoral College–style system, delegates participate in a winner-takes-all vote. Should they vote no on the ratification, union leadership would be back to the table with AMPTP. And their 98 percent strike approval still stands.

What happens if they do strike?

Absolute bedlam. This is the most interesting scenario, by far. We got a taste of the chaos in 2008, when the writers’ strike put countless network dramas on ice and forced late-night hosts to improvise without a script. (Remember Conan spinning his ring? Good times.) But that was limited to the writers’ room back then. Today, we might be headed toward a scenario where cameramen, makeup artists, and lighting technicians are completely MIA — which will gut the industry like a fish. “Striking workers would include almost everyone who works on a film set,” reports Brenden Gallagher at Jacobin. “[The labor stoppage] would be one of the largest in Hollywood history. And with so many different crafts walking out, it would also be the most disruptive. Film and television in the United States would grind to a halt.” It’s honestly hard to get one’s head around the scope of a potential lockout. Some scripted series will have enough content banked to last through the rest of the year, but others, especially those on networks, could start running out of content within a month. (As for who might not be affected, the Hollywood Reporter writes that “union crewmembers working on ads, union productions budgeted under $15 million, and HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax-produced projects for their cable channels would likely continue to show up for work.”)

Theoretically, since the stoppage pertains to the 13 West Coast IATSE chapters at the bargaining table, production houses elsewhere in the country — and internationally — might remain up and running. But nobody knows exactly what to expect. Will a fresh set of ambiguous release-date delays sweep through the nation? Will Jimmy Fallon be hosting The Tonight Show in his bedroom again? A lengthy stoppage conjures images of panicked production companies hiring scab script coordinators off the street to keep the machine running, leading to a production season that is somehow even more strange than last year’s wasteland. Or IATSE’s members will receive what they deserve, and everyone can eschew all this nasty business entirely. Imagine that.

Everything We Know About the 2021 IATSE Strike