IATSE Film Worker Union Threatens Strike

Members plan vote on general strike that would include 140,000 below-the-line film workers nationwide

On Monday, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees called for a strike vote authorization—a step forward in ongoing negotiations between the IATSE film workers’ union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

IATSE represents below-the-line crew on film sets and varies from set dressers, prop masters, grips, accountants, craft services and other positions. Nationally, the union counts over 140,000 members, though current information on precisely how many New Mexico workers among them was unavailable. Liz Pecos, president of the local ITASE 480, declined to comment.

Discontent has grown during already-strained negotiations and even spawned a new Instagram account through which below-the-line crew members have been sharing experiences from on-set where emotional abuse, low pay and long hours are reportedly the norm—an open secret throughout the industry that can lead to off-set safety hazards and deaths. This includes a well-publicized death in 2014 when a driver fell asleep at the wheel in Santa Fe after long working hours on Longmire. The account, which was originally created in July, now boasts over 80,000 followers and includes posts from crew who argue working conditions must improve. Some, for example, describe 60-hour weeks, as well as few paid holidays.

Negotiations with AMPTP began in May to address what IATSE describes as a chance to fix “changes long overdue” in a recent news release. AMPTP, meanwhile, argues these issues have already been addressed and rejected IATSE’s latest offer, which aimed to reduce the aforementioned long hours, low wages, a lack of rest time and reduced pay for workers attached to streaming projects, even when streaming budgets can match or exceed that of traditional studio blockbusters. AMPTP’s counter-offer addressed this last point, offering an 18% improvement on minimum rates for some productions.

AMPTP further suggests that IATSE members should be more concerned with a deficit in the health care pension program. Its counter-proposal includes raising the number of hours needed to qualify for a pension from 450 to 900 per year—exactly what IATSE is negotiating against.

With 82 film projects and 159 television projects filmed in New Mexico during the 2021 fiscal year according to data from the New Mexico Film Office, a general strike from below-the-line workers could send shockwaves throughout the industry, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 2007 Writers Guild of America strike, which shut down productions for months.

“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,” IATSE’s news release reads. “Worse, management does not appear to even recognize our core issues as problems that exist in the first place.”

Filmmaking has reached its highest-ever level of spending in New Mexico with an estimated $624 million pumped into the economy thus far in 2021 according to the state Film Office—and the highest level of days worked by crew, an aggregate 520,000 days this year compared to nearly 320,000 in 2019.

A vote to strike doesn’t mean it’s time for the picket lines just yet, however, but rather a movement towards a last-ditch negotiating effort. Individual IATSE chapters throughout the country must first vote with a minimum 75% approval, basically a simple majority of the 13 locals voting in favor. A voting date has yet to be announced, though all 13 West Coast chapters are expected to participate simultaneously. In its history dating back more than a century, IATSE has never held an industry-wide strike.

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