Movie, TV, and Stage Workers Speak on Conditions, Readiness to Strike

Source: @runolgarun/Twitter

By Sarah Ahmed

Earlier this month, 98% of workers in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) voted to authorize a strike after the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP) walked away from negotiations. On Saturday, the IATSE announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with the AMPTP, which members will vote on later this week, however many IATSE workers have expressed disappointment with the tentative contract, which does not address their concerns with dangerously long hours and low pay.

The IATSE represents what is commonly referred to as ‘below-the-line’ workers in the film industry, including editors, camera operators, makeup artists, grips, and electricians. Tribune of the People spoke to several IATSE workers last week about their struggles in the television and movie industry and why they are fighting for better conditions.

Overworked and under paid, that’s kind of the motto of the TV industry.”

An art department coordinator with Local 871 told Tribune that her local has been at the forefront of the strike, because the four lowest paid positions in IATSE are covered by this local. She makes $15.60 per hour, which is only sixty cents above the minimum wage in California, because her work is treated as ‘unskilled labor.’ She is expected to be on call after she finishes her workday, and says, “I regularly get phone calls at 9, 10 p.m. after I’ve worked a full day.” She is not paid for this after-hours work, as art department workers make a flat rate and do not get overtime.

Even though she works in an office, her job is still physically demanding and involves a lot of lifting. “Some days I’ll hit 20,000 steps,” she says, equivalent to eight to ten miles.

Producers expect the art department to get big results in a short amount of time without many resources. “Overworked and under paid, that’s kind of the motto of the TV industry.”

Her union allows a low minimum weekly rate, so she and her coworkers have banded together to form their own ‘street rate’ and reject offers below it. “We know that we deserve more so we will all refuse that rate and then the producers will have to keep on raising it in the hopes that the next person that gets the call gets a better rate.”

When production returned following the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of money that went into tri-weekly COVID testing and disinfecting sets increased all show budgets by 20%. She and other entertainment industry workers realized that the justifications for the low pay and long hours were false, and that, “the money was always there, they just chose not to spend it so people could go and see their families and have enough time to rest.”

She highlighted the critical role that ‘below-the-line’ workers play in producing film and television, saying that if there was a strike, “Hollywood will come to a complete, screeching halt. There will not be production.”

We work in an industry where we’re trained not to say no.”

A costume designer with the Motion Picture Costumers Local 705 and Costume Designers Guild Local 892 told Tribune that costume designers are often expected to fill a lot of roles outside of costume design, such a consulting on merchandise. On smaller projects, she says, “We’re expected to work with less people and so, inevitably, you end up doing the job of two or three people instead of just the one that you have been hired to do.”

She has also had to do work completely unrelated to production, like doing a producer’s laundry. “We work in an industry where we’re trained not to say no.”

She and her coworkers will work dangerously long hours, 60-70 hours a week, without overtime. “On the project I just came off of, there was a week that I think the least amount of hours I worked was 14 hours a day and the most I worked was 19 or 21. […] my turnaround time, so the time that I had between leaving set and coming back to set, was often six to eight hours.”

The long hours are life-threatening, as she told Tribune, “I have been fortunate enough not to have been on a production where somebody has passed away from falling asleep at the wheel. Especially if you’ve worked on crew, on set, you’ve dozed at the wheel. I know I have. Almost everyone I know has.”

The poor conditions, particularly the long hours, have fueled the workers’ resolve to go on strike. She says even workers with higher pay voted to authorize the strike, because they need to spend more time with their families. One of her coworkers has to tell her kids goodnight over Facetime. “People are willing to risk losing their homes to get better treatment. It’s about more than money.”

“We see the success of our shows. All these companies are more or less public so we see how much their profits are. You know what you’re making at work, and you know how much money they made. You’d think a little bit of that could go into making our lives better but it hasn’t.”

You spend twelve hours a day working and you’re alone […] It gets really depressing.”

A video editor in Local 700 told Tribune that his work involves editing daily footage and working closely with directors and producers. When he has to wait for other editors to finish their work, he can finish his day as late as 10 p.m.

Since the pandemic, he and his coworkers work from home and are now responsible for paying for their own internet and equipment. He says that studios are “essentially getting free office space from everyone. They’ll pay a little bit for your equipment, but not like they were doing before. So they’re actually saving quite a bit of money.”

Working from home makes it difficult for workers to determine when their workday actually ends. “What usually happens is you’re done at 8 p.m. or whatever, and you’re still getting pings, messages and emails,” he says, also mentioning that workers have difficulty getting paid overtime for this additional work. Working from home also results in feelings of isolation, as he explained: “You spend twelve hours a day working and you’re alone all day, and not working in an office with other people. It gets really depressing.”

The worker said he felt inspired by the potential strike, saying, “I hope that it creates having boundaries and higher wages and better work conditions. […] I hope it spreads to non-union work as well.”

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