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labor How Unions Saved Hollywood During The Pandemic And What’s In Store For 2022

Hollywood’s guilds and unions saved the film and TV business in 2021.

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Hollywood’s guilds and unions saved the film and TV business in 2021. Working cooperatively with the industry’s companies, they adopted Covid-19 protocols that got production booming and their members safely back to work, all the while averting strikes that would have crippled recovery efforts.

And earlier this year, Hollywood’s unions were among the first in the nation to allow employers to mandate vaccinations as a condition of employment – which NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB players’ unions are still opposed to, as are unions representing police officers, airline pilots and teachers.

Hollywood’s current three-year bargaining cycle, delayed by the pandemic, is almost at an end, but the next one will begin in little more than a year. Guild leaders are already talking tough about the next cycle, while many of their members, who believe they have sacrificed so much, think it’s time for the companies to show their appreciation at the bargaining table come 2023.

How We Got Here

Early on in the pandemic, opportunities to strike were limited as production was already shut down. SAG-AFTRA and the WGA both negotiated their current contracts during the bleakest days of lockdown; the DGA got its deal in the very last days of the pre-pandemic, and IATSE negotiated a contract earlier this year that narrowly averted the first industrywide strike in its history.

The DGA, which had only struck once in its entire history – and then for only 15 minutes back in 1987 – began its negotiations with the AMPTP on Feb. 10, 2020, nearly three weeks before the first reported Covid-19 death in the U.S.

The DGA got its deal on March 5, 2020 – just two days before Tom Hanks revealed that he’d contracted the virus, and a week before the NBA suspended its season. Overwhelmingly ratified by its members, the DGA pact provided for significant gains in residuals from streaming shows, and more contributions to fund its pension and health plans. It also set the pattern of bargaining for the other guilds and unions to follow, which they did in short order.

DGA and other guild leaders were also moving quickly to address the impact the pandemic was having on their members. “A major concern we’re hearing most right now is about when we’ll be returning to work, and how we can be certain that it’s safe to do so,” DGA president Thomas Schlamme and national executive director Russell Hollander told their members April 16, 2020. “Rest assured, this is something we’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking about as well. While we don’t have an answer as to when production will resume, we are taking steps to address how we can be safe when it does happen.”

A DGA National Return To Work Committee, spearheaded by Steven Soderbergh, director of the 2011 pandemic thriller Contagion, had already been appointed to “do a thorough examination of the issues at hand, and to make recommendations to the board,” the DGA leaders said. “The committee is consulting with top epidemiologists in the field, and we will collaborate with our sister guilds and unions and the employers as we put together a comprehensive guide to help us all return safely to work.”

Indeed, collaboration between the companies and the unions would be the key to reopening.

SAG-AFTRA Negotiations & The Safe Way Forward

SAG-AFTRA was next up to negotiate a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, the companies’ bargaining arm that would play a vital role in restarting the production pipeline and keeping it flowing.

AMPTP president Carol Lombardini hadn’t forced a strike since she took office in March of 2009, and during the pandemic, has bargained five major union contracts while at the same time representing the companies in the development of several incarnations of the back-to-work protocols.

The SAG-AFTRA contract talks began on April 27, 2020 – more than a month before the easing of the lockdown. SAG-AFTRA, and the Screen Actors Guild before it, hadn’t struck the film and TV industry since 1980, but with production already ground to a halt, a strike this moment was all but out of the question.

At the same time, four separate sets of around-the-clock meetings were underway to get production restarted. One involved the AMPTP and the unions, working together under the auspices of Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee Task Force. Another involved separate talks among the unions, and the others involved the DGA National Return To Work Committee and the SAG-AFTRA President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety.

On June 1, the Task Force produced its 22-page Industry White Paper, Hollywood’s first guidelines for the Covid era. Its recommendations, shared that day with the governors of California and New York, included masks, rigorous testing, social distancing whenever possible, and disinfecting of worksites. The 10-week lockdown officially ended that day.

Schlamme told DGA members that “With science as their guide, the Committee consulted with top epidemiologists, medical experts, and risk analysts – and it quickly became clear that testing would be key to our return to work. In parallel, our sister guilds and unions – IATSE, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Basic Crafts, and SAG-AFTRA – were undergoing similar processes. And we locked arms in unprecedented coordination and solidarity. Together, we worked with the employers on a White Paper for state governments to examine the resumption of production.”

Ten days later, on June 11, SAG-AFTRA reached an agreement with the AMPTP for a new contract that the guild said would boost members’ incomes by $318 million over three years and generate more than $50 million in additional funding for its health plan.

“We are living in transformational times,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, who chaired the union’s negotiating committee. “With all that is happening in the world right now, we accomplished something significant.” The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the U.S. had now surpassed 2 million.

The next day, the unions released their own more detailed protocols called The Safe Way Forward – a joint effort by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, the Teamsters and the Basic Crafts. Their 36-page report, which implemented the more general guidelines set forth in a White Paper, came out on the same day that L.A. County allowed production to resume.

Like the White Paper, the unions’ protocols stressed testing and social distancing, but also established a systems of on-set safety “zones” to protect cast members, who are the most vulnerable because they can’t wear masks or socially distance while performing.

In its introduction, The Safe Way Forward noted that “This document was conceived and initially drafted by a DGA committee of working members, based upon close consultation with infectious disease epidemiologists and other experts…SAG-AFTRA was simultaneously but independently working on its own protocols through its President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety, its staff, and expert consultants.”

Working together and separately, labor and management had come up with a still-evolving set of plans just in time for filming to resume in California and New York. But they still had to codify their work into contract language. And that would take months.

The WGA, which hadn’t struck since 2007-08, was next up to negotiate a contract with the AMPTP. The WGA’s contract had been set to expire on May 1, 2020, but was extended to June 30 “due to the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The talks began virtually on May 18 – while Lombardini was still in talks with SAG-AFTRA. The pandemic was in its first wave, and ten days later, the CDC would announce that the death toll had surpassed 100,000.

The WGA was fighting on two fronts. It was already a year into its historic battle with the major talent agencies over packaging fees and their ownership of production entities – an historic fight it would go on to win, ending packaging in June of 2022. WGA members were fired up, and ready to take on the studios as well.

Strike fears had been swirling for months. At the WGA Awards that February, WGA West president David A. Goodman told the audience that “It’s dangerously naïve to think that a strike is never necessary.” Then, to cheers from the assembled writers, he added: “I’ll point out that 30% of the nominees tonight are working on shows and features that wouldn’t be covered work if we hadn’t gone on strike in 2007.”

But then came the lockdown, which precluded any real threat of a writers’ strike. The WGA’s negotiating committee acknowledged as much after an agreement for a new contract was reached in the early morning hours of July 1. “Although the ongoing global pandemic and economic uncertainty limited our ability to exercise real collective power to achieve many other important and necessary contract goals, we remain committed to pursuing those goals in future negotiations.”

Those future negotiations will begin in early 2023, and WGA leaders are already taking a hardline stance. Last August, shortly before she was elected president of the WGA West, Meredith Stiehm said that she’s ready for a “fight” with the major studios over a bigger share of streaming revenue and to achieve a long list of other economic gains for writers.

“I think writers feel in our bones that this will be a crucial negotiation,” she said in her campaign statement. “Once again a new business model – vertically integrated streaming – is revolutionizing writers’ jobs, and being used to squeeze our pay. The downward pressure on income that we are all feeling is not a byproduct of the model, it is the goal.”

Stiehm, who was one of the leaders of the WGA’s campaign to reshape the talent agency business, said that she’s “ready to take on another battle if we have to. When the cause is right and true, I do not fear speaking up, standing up, and holding steady, for as long as it takes. I’m a good fighter.”

She noted, however, that “the companies are consolidating their power precisely to resist such changes. We know that to make these gains, it will probably take a fight. We’re up to it. This membership has shown time and time again that it is not afraid to solve problems.”

Her running mates – Betsy Thomas, who was elected secretary-treasurer, and Michele Mulroney, who was elected vice president – sounded a similar theme.

The guild’s 2020 contract talks and its victory over the major talent agencies, Thomas said, “Have given our union a duly earned reputation for being smart, tenacious, and, frankly, kick ass. We are to be taken seriously and feared – and heading into 2023, we need to be. I believe our next MBA negotiation will be our most important and difficult negotiation since our strike in 2007. Vertical integration and corporate consolidation have put us – and our sister unions – at a turning point. There are gains that we must secure in two years. We have the strength and the stature, but it’s imperative that we also have a well-conceived strategy and the courage to enact it.”

“The AMPTP’s two favorite words are rollback and NO,” Mulroney said. “We must not underestimate the tenacity and strategic know-how required just to hold onto what we already have. Including securing our Pension & Health Plans, as necessary. That’s job number one. Although we have plenty of specifics to fight for across all work areas, the 2023 headline for me is clear: We must ensure that the economics of streaming work for writers.”

Watershed Gains For Women

Earlier this year, women were elected presidents of SAG-AFTRA, the DGA and the WGA West, marking the first time that females have held the guilds’ top elected posts all at the same time.

Newly elected SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher is also looking ahead to contract talks in 2023. “I intend to build up the perception of SAG-AFTRA as one of power and strength to the envy of our industry peers and reservation of our employers,” she wrote in the latest issue of the union’s magazine. “We are relevant. We are stars. And we mean business!”

Joely Fisher, SAG-AFTRA’s new secretary-treasurer, told members that increasing employer contributions to the union’s ailing health plan should be a primary goal of the next negotiations. Fisher and Drescher were elected in September from opposing factions within the guild.

“When President Drescher asked how I wanted to be most effective, I told her that my sitting on the 2023 TV/Theatrical Negotiating Committee will be vital,” Fisher said. “As a member of that committee and in my role as secretary-treasurer, I will tirelessly maintain that we must raise the employer contributions to our health and pension plans. While difficult to explain in a sentence, we know that this negotiating point is the single greatest barrier we face to the lasting financial progress of our benefit plans.”

On January 1, 2021, trustees of the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan — which has been running massive deficits in recent years due to underfunding and skyrocketing health care costs — raised eligibility requirements. That move, in turn, led to an age-discrimination lawsuit fronted by the late-former SAG president Ed Asner that claimed that the changes fell hardest on the backs of seniors.

Lesli Linka Glatter was elected president of the DGA in September, and in October, when she announced the co-chairs of the 2023 negotiating committee, said; “We don’t yet know when our next negotiations will take place, but we are looking ahead as we carefully examine the creative and economic issues faced by our members working in film and television.”

The industries’ return-to-work protocols were codified in September of 2020 – a joint effort between the AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, IATSE, the Teamsters and the Basic Crafts. Set to expire in June of 2021, they didn’t include mandates for Covid-19 vaccinations, which weren’t widely available yet.

IASTE Vs. AMPTP, Vaccine Mandates & What’s Next

IATSE started its contract talks with the AMPTP in May of 2021, and they’d drag on for months in a battle to curb brutally long workdays and a bigger share of streaming residuals. But in the meantime, the unions were moving quickly to take the next step in the battle against the coronavirus – vaccination mandates.

SAG-AFTRA was the first to act. On June 24, 2021, its board of directors adopted strict new guidelines that allowed employers to make vaccinations mandatory as a condition of employment. Less than a month later, the unions banded together and reached an agreement with the AMPTP to allow for mandates on a restricted basis.

Covid cases in the U.S. had now passed 34 million, with over 600,000 deaths.

Unable to reach an agreement with the AMPTP for a new contract, IATSE leaders asked their members for strike authorization on Sept. 20, which was granted on Oct. 4 by an overwhelming majority – with 98% voting in favor. The AMPTP, however, said it remained committed to reaching a deal, and talks resumed. But ten days later, as the final deadline for a deal approached, members were told by their leaders to “Assume there will be a strike, and hope there isn’t.”

A deal was finally reached on Oct. 16, which IATSE president Matt Loeb called “A Hollywood ending,” saying “We went toe to toe with some of the richest and most powerful entertainment and tech companies in the world, and we have now reached an agreement with the AMPTP that meets our members’ needs.”

But after revving their members for a possible strike, IATSE leaders then had to calm them down to ratify the contract – with they did on Nov. 15 by the narrowest of margins. A majority of members from the 13 West Coast studio locals actually voted against the contract, but it was ratified under the union’s electoral college-type voting system.

Hollywood breathed a collective sigh of relief. For while leaders of all the other guilds and unions strongly supported IATSE’s demands for a fair contract, they knew that a strike would have thrown their members out of work just as production was returning to pre-pandemic levels. And after so much loss, jobs were returning. SAG-AFTRA reported record jobs and earnings through the first five months of 2021. To meet a house-bound nation’s demand for more entertainment product, producers had sped up the assembly line. A common complaint among IATSE members is that they’re working more brutally long hours now than ever before.

The AMPTP, meanwhile, still has two contracts to negotiate to complete the current bargaining cycle. Talks with the Animation Guild, and with Teamsters Local 399 and the Basic Crafts – which include IBEW Local 40, Studio Utility Employees Local 724, Studio Plumbers Local 78, and Studio Plasterers Local 755 – will resume in January after a holiday hiatus.

Barring unforeseen problems with those negotiations, 2022 should be a year of labor peace for the film and TV industry. But watch out for 2023, as the guilds feel that they have a lot of catching up to do.