Stagehand strike seems a show-stopper

Hollywood seems like a glamorous world to outsiders but behind the scenes, the creative engines of America’s entertainment industry function much like other industries, where most of the heavy labor is done by low-paid employees while the fattest paychecks go to executives and investors who often do little more than push pencils or move money.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a labor union representing over 150,000 technicians and other workers in the entertainment industry, has issued a warning that its members may vote to go on strike.

At the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, none of the winners acknowledged IATSE in their speeches.

If members authorize it, the vote would empower IATSE union president Matthew D. Loeb to order a nationwide strike.

Nobody wants a strike, according to actor Bradley Whitford, who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and said “IATSE is being forced to consider it by negotiators for the AMPTP who refuse to even discuss guaranteed meal breaks or 10 hour turnarounds. That’s nuts.”

“They are literally requesting enough time between shifts to get a decent night’s sleep,” said journalist and author Mark Harris.

If that happens, the strike could put a stop to entertainment projects including live theatre, motion picture and television production, broadcast, and trade shows in the United States and Canada.

IATSE represents editors, grips, operators, cinematographers, sound technicians, costumers, make-up, hair stylists, writers assistants, script coordinators and others.

A grip is responsible for setting up, rigging, and striking lighting equipment on set. They are also responsible for keeping equipment organized, and sometimes equipment maintenance.

Stagehands are usually skilled in multiple disciplines, including rigging, carpentry, painting, stage electrics, stage lighting, audio, video/projection, and props.

Stagehands are often responsible for operating the systems during shows or taping and also for the repair and maintenance of the equipment. Most of these workers have a general knowledge of all the phases of a production, but tend to develop specialties and focus on specific areas.

Loeb, who was re-elected in July, has led the union since 2008, the same year that 12,000 film and television screenwriters of two labor unions—the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), and the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW)—went on a 100-day-long strike.

A 2013 stagehand strike in Philadelphia lasted two weeks.

“After months of negotiating successor contracts to the Producer-IATSE Basic Agreement, and the Theatrical and Television Motion Picture Area Standards Agreement, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) announced Monday it does not intend to make any counteroffer to the IATSE’s most recent proposal,” said the union.

Since 1982, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has been the trade association responsible for negotiating virtually all industry-wide guild and union contracts, including those with American Federation of Musicians (AFM); Directors Guild of America (DGA); International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); Laborers Local 724; Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA); Teamsters, Local #399; and Writers Guild of America (WGA) among others.

AMPTP represents the interests of 397 American film and television producers.

The most influential of these are ten corporations: CBS (headed by Les Moonves, who has amassed a net worth of over $800 million), MGM (run by Harry E. Sloan, whose net worth is at least $22.5 million), NBCUniversal (where chairman Jeff Zucker has a net worth of $60 million), Lionsgate (led by CEO Jon Feltheimer, who has a net worth of $30 million), 21st Century Fox (run by billionaire Rupert Murdoch), Paramount Pictures (led by Brian Robbins, the Head of the Class actor who graduated to studio boss with a net worth of $150 million), Liberty Media/Starz (controlled by billionaire John C. Malone.), Sony Pictures (whose corporate owner is headed by Japanese billionaire Kenichirō Yoshida), The Walt Disney Company (where Bob Iger’s estimated net worth was about $690 million), and Warner Bros. (where Ann Sarnoff, the only female CEO among the top movie makers, has a comparatively low $5 million net worth).

The average annual pay for an IATSE member in the US is $79,870 a year.

The union statement also said, “Throughout the bargaining process, the AMPTP has failed to work with us on addressing the most grievous problems in their workplaces, including:

  • Excessively unsafe and harmful working hours.
  • Unlivable wages for the lowest paid crafts.
  • Consistent failure to provide reasonable rest during meal breaks, between workdays, and on weekends.
  • Workers on certain ‘new media’ streaming projects get paid less, even on productions with budgets that rival or exceed those of traditionally released blockbusters.”

“It is incomprehensible that the AMPTP, an ensemble that includes media mega-corporations collectively worth trillions of dollars, claims it cannot provide behind-the-scenes crews with basic human necessities like adequate sleep, meal breaks, and living wages,” said the union. “Worse, management does not appear to even recognize our core issues as problems that exist in the first place.”

“These issues are real for the workers in our industry and change is long overdue. However, the explosion of streaming combined with the pandemic has elevated and aggravated working conditions, bringing 60,000 behind-the-scenes workers covered by these contracts to a breaking point,” it said. “We risked our health and safety all year, working through the Pandemic to ensure that our business emerged intact. Now, we cannot and will not accept a deal that leaves us with an unsustainable outcome.”

In response to the AMPTP’s tactics, IATSE members are mobilizing in preparation for a nationwide strike authorization vote to demonstrate our commitment to achieving the change that is long overdue in this industry.

(full name: International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada), is

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