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labor The IATSE Contract Vote Is a Worst-Case Scenario

he film and TV workers’ union IATSE ratified a pair of contracts on Monday, despite a majority of ballots being cast against the larger of the two deals. Thanks to the union’s Electoral College–style voting system, that contract passed anyway.

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Some sixty thousand members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), below-the-line workers in the film and television industry, have ratified the Basic Agreement and the Area Standards Agreement (ASA). The contracts passed the union’s Electoral College–style delegate system by a clear margin, with a combined delegate count of 349 yes to 282 no. But in raw numbers, the majority of ballots cast by members covered under the Basic Agreement, the larger of the two contracts, were against it: the breakdown was 49.6 percent yes to 50.4 percent no (the combined raw numbers for the two contracts are 50.3 percent yes to 49.7 percent no). Turnout was higher than in previous contracts, with 72 percent of eligible members voting.

The Basic Agreement passing even as the majority of ballots were against it is a worst-case scenario for the newly energized membership, whose experience of time off from production jobs at the start of the pandemic combined with the tighter labor market to heighten their expectations of what work can and should be. Some of those members will feel that the contract was forced on them undemocratically, even as they were ready and willing to strike. Indeed, a similar experience in the Teamsters, where the majority of members voted down the massive UPS contract only to have it forced on them anyway, led to a restructuring of the union, and may well lead the incumbent-backed slate to lose the current leadership election.

IATSE’s voting system is as follows: each of the locals have a number of delegates based on their size. Within each local, every member casts a ballot, with a winner-take-all result. For example, members of the largest local covered by the agreements, Local 600, voted 48 to 52 percent to reject the proposed contract, so all of their delegate votes were “no,” while 51.9 percent of ballots cast by members of Local 700, another large local, were “yes,” so all the local’s delegates cast “yes” votes.

“The most disappointing aspect is that the delegate vote and popular vote differ,” says Brandon Silverman, an assistant editor and Local 700 member who voted no. “If they were the same, it’d be easier to swallow. But a majority of our voting members voted no, yet the contract is still ratified.”

A tentative agreement on the three-year contracts was reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) on October 16, mere hours before the union was set to go on strike, an action that would’ve shut down the industry nationwide and been the largest private-sector strike in the United States since 2007.

When the proposed deal was first announced, members voiced dissatisfaction with the abbreviated highlights. The opposition was based on a number of shortcomings, and a sense that the conditions were ripe for a strike that could win more and set the tone for other IATSE contracts as well as other Hollywood unions that are preparing to bargain their own contracts.

First, there is the issue of turnaround times, or the minimum time a worker has from when she leaves work to when she can be expected to be back on the job. IATSE secured ten-hour minimum turnaround times — meaning that a worker has ten hours to commute home, eat, do as she will, sleep, and commute back. Many IATSE members already have ten-hour minimums, and they say it isn’t enough: stories of fatal and near-fatal drowsy driving are pervasive among the membership.

Years ago, cinematographer and Local 600 member Haskell Wexler led a push for twelve-hour turnarounds — the demand was twelve hours on, twelve hours off, a recognition that it is not only turnaround times that are the issue but the industry’s fourteen-, sixteen-, or even twenty-hour days. (Local 600 was also Halyna Hutchins’s local. Hutchins was one of several of the local’s members to be killed on set as a result of labor and safety corner-cutting by producers.) Many members say that twelve on, twelve off remains their goal.

“I just joined the union a short bit ago and have already been put under an extreme amount of work stemming from fourteen-to-eighteen-hour days,” says one no voter in Local 700 who requested anonymity. “Although a ten-hour turnaround is better, it’s surely not enough for a long-term sustainable career under the streamers.”

“I don’t think the contract properly addresses the reasonable concerns we have about wage increases and rest periods,” says another no voter, a member of Local 728 who also requested anonymity. “The strike authorization vote energized people and made many realize we could and should demand more.”

While many people talk as if the industry’s horrendous scheduling practices are how things have always been, a product of the unique demands of film production, many of these problems are the result of relatively recent concessions in IATSE contracts.

As Local 107 member Aaron Hall writes in a thorough history of IATSE contracts, it was in 1989 that the union agreed to effectively end the five-day workweek. As Hall writes, IATSE agreed “to end double-time pay for Saturdays and Sundays, get rid of night premium wage differentials, and end the Monday through Friday 5-day workweek without even the threat of a strike. In exchange, IATSE members received a 3% annual raise and increased employer contributions to the health and pension plans.” On raw numbers, the membership narrowly rejected the tentative agreement, with a 49 to 51 percent vote against it — a result strikingly similar to how members voted on the Basic Agreement this time around — but thanks to the union’s Electoral College–style voting system, the contract passed by 58 to 42 percent.

In the 2021 negotiations, the union’s bargaining committee did not come to the table proposing twelve-hour turnarounds; they only asked for ten. That’s a step up for some members — Local 700 was excluded from this standard in the 2018 contract and has been operating with nine-hour turnarounds. But the issue illustrates the current dynamic in the union: members have moved over the course of the months-long negotiating process, and they want more than the committee had originally demanded. Many workers saw voting down the tentative agreement as the means of rectifying that distance.

“Things obviously changed over the summer and with the solidarity that was built through the locals,” says Silverman, the Local 700 member. “I think we’re missing an opportunity here — both because of the Rustincident and the overall growing labor actions throughout the country — if we don’t reject and ask for more, like twelve-hour turnarounds or additional residuals from streaming. I understand where leadership is coming from when they say we can build on this, but three years is a long time, and a lot can change.”

While the question of residuals has received less attention than turnaround times, it is pressing, too. Although the agreement fills a $400 million health and pension deficit, it does not ensure future sustainability. As Cathy Repola, Local 700’s executive director, wrote in an email to her members, “Residuals remain a concern. The AMPTP continues to refuse us new revenue streams. A decision among the bargaining committee was made to accept a deal without them as all of the working conditions were addressed.”

The leadership was unified in recommending ratification. As a joint statement by the bargaining committee put it, “We continue to believe that not only did we reach the best agreement possible after these many months of negotiations culminating in a resounding strike authorization vote that was the turning point in us achieving what we set out to do, but also that the solidarity among the locals was inspiring and astounding and the linchpin to our success.” In an unusual move, the statement also acknowledged the opposition — “we hear you, we see you, and we recognize we collectively still have work to do to change the culture of our industry.”

“Our goal was to achieve fair contracts that work for IATSE members in television and film — that address quality-of-life issues and conditions on the job like rest and meal breaks,” said Loeb in a statement today announcing the contracts’ ratification. “We met our objectives for this round of bargaining and built a strong foundation for future agreements.”

Repola, who in 2018 was the sole formal leader to recommend members vote down the agreement — her local rejected it and was responsible for the only no votes in the union’s delegate system — backed the agreement this time. In stark contrast to when she was hounded by Loeb in 2018, this time, Repola stood side by side with the president. As she wrote in an email to her local’s membership before the vote began, “2021 is not 2018.”

That statement is true in a sense beyond Repola’s intended meaning: IATSE is not the same union it was in 2018, or even a few months ago, when contract negotiations began. Many members saw their opportunity to seize the moment to set higher standards for a grueling industry, and they remained steadfast, even as their leadership ran a “vote yes” campaign. Going forward, it will take sustained work to solidify this transformation so that, in the next round of contract negotiations, members get what they want and need.

“Through this process, we have started organizing internally and between the locals, so that is a positive step,” says Victor Bouzi, a sound engineer and Local 695 member who voted no. “We need to be ready for the next big fight.”

Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington PostVox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.