“Unsustainable and Unhealthy”: As IATSE Workers Go Public, Pressure Mounts on Studios Amid Looming Strike

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Makeup artist Kristina Frisch learned quickly that COVID-19 hadn’t slowed the pace of work in film and television production. After accepting her first full-time job following pandemic-related shutdowns, she discovered the gig would entail working six-day weeks for the entire shoot and never being able to break for lunch (she could eat while working). Then, during the shoot, “I went five days without seeing my children,” Frisch says, a new record for her. Overall, after quarantine, “It was like, we got shut down, so we now have to work longer and harder.”

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Kristina Frisch, photographed on October 1 in Los Angeles.
Photographed by Lee Morgan

For months, crewmembers have shared stories like this one on social media, detailing long hours, low wages and grueling work conditions in today’s production environment, against the backdrop of new contract negotiations. Since May, the major crew union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), has been hammering out details for a new Basic Agreement with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

Union leaders have been advocating for more substantial rest periods, higher minimum rates for the lowest-paid crafts, and more streaming compensation and resources for their health and pension plan. Those talks broke down in mid-September, and this weekend, tens of thousands of IATSE members are voting on whether to authorize their international president, Matthew Loeb, to potentially call a strike against the film and television industry. For their part, the AMPTP has said that the union walked away from a “deal-closing comprehensive proposal” that addressed its top concerns. A strong vote in favor of authorization could give union negotiators more leverage in talks, while an overall “no” vote could jeopardize their position.

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Colby Bachiller, photographed on September 29 in Los Angeles.
Photographed by Lee Morgan

However the vote pans out, this negotiation period has inspired crewmembers to get increasingly candid about work conditions. As a result, “I think [the larger industry is] finally paying attention,” says script coordinator and Local 871 member Colby Bachiller. “Even before the pandemic, we knew how the rates and the hours were unlivable, unsustainable and unhealthy — but now they’re just cruel.” IATSE members are getting more specific about their concerns, too, raising the alarm about skipped meal breaks, extensive workdays, short rest periods and living standards on their union’s minimum rates. (The AMPTP’s proposal to IATSE included improved rest periods for certain postproduction workers and crewmembers working on first-season TV shows, and a 10-19 percent increase in minimum rates for low-paid crafts, it has said.)

Thanks in part to the popular Instagram account IA Stories, which shares mostly anonymous tales from crewmembers, IATSE workers have become especially vocal about the toll of over-12-hour workdays. Though some productions initially gestured toward trying to implement a 10-hour day, as recommended by the industry’s top guilds when production restarted during the pandemic, “it seemed like a lot of that good-faith stuff did not hold up,” says property master Theresa Corvino, a member of Local 44. “I’ve seen dramatic shifts toward not taking meal breaks at all or meal breaks running hours behind; seeing 14-16 hour days on the regular when the soft promise was 10-hour days; seeing shows running what we refer to as ‘Fraturdays’ just about every weekend.” (“Fraturdays” refer to late Friday shoots that run into the early morning on Saturday, giving crewmembers less rest time before they return to work on Monday.)

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Victor P. Bouzi, photographed on October 1 in Los Angeles.
Photographed by Lee Morgan

Victor P. Bouzi, a sound mixer and Local 695 member, says of some jobs requiring 14- to 20-hour days for weeks, “That wasn’t always the case. This seems to be more of a drive just to get the product out since COVID with all these new streaming platforms that have come out.” One crewmember says they’re “constantly” asked to change time cards when it comes to turnaround invasions. A studio source says the AMPTP offered a daily 10-hour turnaround, with exceptions for feature postproduction, on-call employees and studio publicity, during negotiations. Fraturdays are still an “open item” in negotiations, this source says, adding that during night shoots, “clearly you’re going to have that situation.”

A lack of guaranteed meal breaks makes these long days even more taxing, according to some crewmembers. “I just worked on a feature in Atlanta where we never once had a lunch break. Not once did we have a lunch break for 40 shooting days,” says costumer and Local 705 member Eric Johnson. Union members claim that meal penalties, the fee productions pay when workers miss mandated meal periods, have become so affordable that productions bake them into budgets (Basic Agreement signatories have to pay members of at least some major IATSE locals between $7.50 and $13.50 per half hour after the missed mealtime). And while the extra meal-penalty compensation can be helpful to those with low pay, “after 10 years of [missed meals], you just can’t sustain that,” says Johnson. Some productions advocate for “rolling lunches” where workers step away briefly and/or fill in for one another during an uninterrupted workday so they can grab food, but crewmembers in certain roles — like those in the camera department — say that they can’t realistically leave or have someone else briefly assume their roles.

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Eric Johnson, photographed on September 29 in Los Angeles.
Photographed by Lee Morgan

On social media, IATSE members and their allies have advocated for guaranteed meal breaks. The studio source says the AMPTP offered an “alternative meal break solution,” with rolling lunches being just one of the options discussed, which was rejected. “We feel that people do have an opportunity to actually have a meal on productions by and large,” this studio source adds.

Workers say extra long hours that may have been sustainable when they were younger aren’t now. “When you’re 24 years old, it’s very different than when you’re 44 years old, how your body can handle all that,” says director of photography and Local 600 member Patti Lee, who previously worked as an electrician and gaffer. “You also see a lot of broken people at the end, in their older years.”

Individuals in some of IATSE’s lowest-paid roles say that, beyond long hours, they face additional struggles due to what they describe as unlivable pay. Currently, writers assistants, assistant production coordinators and art department coordinators make a contractual minimum of $16 an hour or a little bit above, while script coordinators make, at minimum, $17.64 an hour. While trying to learn how to make ends meet in her role, Bachiller remembers being advised by support-staff colleagues to, on Fridays, take “all the food that was about to expire from the kitchen and that would be our groceries for the weekend.” She adds, “That was just considered normal, that was just part of paying your dues.” Alison Golub, a writers assistant and Local 871 member, counts herself lucky that she’s an L.A. native and can live at home — “because I can’t afford to pay rent.” A strike would be especially challenging for members in these roles, and Local 871 is currently putting together a program, potentially financed at least in part by a strike fund, to offer financial support to them in the event of a strike; at least one other Local is working on an economic relief program.

Concern over crewmembers’ working hours, rest periods and low wages isn’t new, and has been building steadily for years. According to one union insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the issues the union is fighting for this round of negotiations are “the same five or six issues that we have been talking [about] with our employers for a decade,” namely, low wages, long hours, rest periods, compensation from new media, and health and pension plan funding. (“There are some issues that both sides, producers and unions, want to resolve in negotiations,” the studio source counters. “At the end of the day, there have been deals made the last five or six rounds of negotiations, and clearly both sides, including the union, agreed to the contract, so they must have agreed to those lists of priorities.”) The 1997 death of second camera assistant Brent Lon Hershman in a car crash and the 2006 release of Haskell Wexler’s documentary on entertainment’s long working hours, Who Needs Sleep?, ignited similar conversations decades before. Members of the Motion Picture Editors Guild and the Costume Designers Guild have discussed a potential strike for years.

But IATSE members — whose union represents roles as disparate as studio publicists and lighting technicians — are “straight-up united” about these issues in 2021, says Bouzi. Citing the so-called “Great Resignation,” a term describing the recent nationwide surge in resignations across industries, Golub adds, “I think what’s going on in the film industry right now is indicative of what’s going on in the country as a whole.” She says, “I enjoy working in film and television but I also want to have a life outside of it and that’s not unreasonable to ask for.”

In recent days, the umbrella union, and the 36 Locals whose members will cast a ballot, have been keeping their constituency abreast of voting developments via email and text; Locals have also held informational town halls, and members have been using social media, phone-banking and car-painting to urge others to vote yes. In its communications with members, IATSE leaders are encouraging them to vote to authorize a strike and stressing that an authorization does not mean a strike will occur, but is instead a bargaining chip. The union insider notes that most members of their Local that they’ve talked to seem ready to vote yes, but a small number are still unsure. The AMPTP and IATSE do not yet have a set date to return to the negotiating table.

On set, crewmembers say they haven’t heard much chatter from management about a potential strike even as it looms over the industry, threatening productions nationwide. “You know things are being done in a different way than normal because there’s concerns about there being a strike, but nobody is coming out and saying, ‘We’re doing this because of a strike,’” says Corvino. Frisch says it’s strange to see fellow crewmembers wearing “IA Solidarity” T-shirts on set but few people around them talking or asking about it. “Everybody acts like something’s not happening until they absolutely have to deal with it,” she says, “which I understand, really, because you never know what way it’s going to go.”

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