Why the Historic Strike Vote of Film & TV Workers Is a Big, Big Deal

The 98.7% strike vote from 90% of IATSE union members is huge leverage in improving the working conditions of exploited TV, movie, and theater craftspeople.

behind the scenes of midnight mass
Behind the scenes of 'Midnight Mass' | Netflix
Behind the scenes of 'Midnight Mass' | Netflix

By now, if you've been on social media at all and/or are adjacent to any sort of media community, you've probably seen the acronym IATSE floating around, as well as talk of fair wages, long working hours, and the possibility of a strike. The IATSE, which stands for International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, is a labor union representing over 150,000 tech workers and craftspeople—workers behind the camera, in the costume or prop department, designing and constructing sets, for example—all over the filmed and theatrical entertainment industries of both the US and Canada, and, like many of the rest of us, came back to set with new expectations for their extremely demanding jobs. (Disclosure: Thrillist is unionized with the Writers Guild of America East.) Here's why this fight between on-set workers and studios—especially streaming platforms—is a big, big deal for the TV, film, and theater world.

What's going on with the IATSE workers?

It's been a year since many film and television productions started up again after their COVID hiatus, and the workers are feeling the strain of working long hours away from home, and timing commutes and mealtimes around the strain of keeping up with demanding production schedules. If Facebook and all its territories weren't currently down, I'd link to the @ia_stories Instagram here, an account that has been posting anonymous stories from on-set workers across the media landscape, detailing the ways they have been overworked and abused, either recently or in the past.

The conditions these people work in to make our TV shows and movies and news broadcasts and live theatrical productions happen are dire, to say the least—a work day could easily stretch out to 14 or more hours—and the IATSE union has been in contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) since May of this year until reaching this bargaining standstill.

What do the unions want?

The unions represented by IATSE are seeking guaranteed 10-hour turnaround between shifts, 54-hour turnaround on weekends, increased base pay, increased meal penalties, a way to force-stop productions to break for lunch, and changes to the "New Media" deal struck with streaming platforms in 2009, which basically allows said streaming platforms to not pay out residuals and contribute less to the healthcare and pension funds of IATSE members than other "traditional" media. Obviously, the content consuming landscape looks much different than it did back when Netflix was still mailing DVDs to people, and the union is demanding that these corporate giants start paying their share.

"For too long these billion-dollar streaming companies have been abusing the 'New Media' contract to pay all of us less and it needs to stop," an anonymous IATSE member shared with SlashFilm. "There is nothing new and experimental about digital streaming services anymore. They are the standard now, COVID times have proved that, and they all need to pay their fare [sic] share instead of pocketing the extra profits."

Is IATSE going to strike?

On Monday, October 4, the 150,000 IATSE members voted in a historic turnout for a strike authorization, which passed with 98.7% support and 90% turnout, an insane number that speaks to the power of union organizing, as well as to the inhumane working conditions these people have to deal with. A strike would shutter productions on pretty much everything for an untold amount of time. Remember the 2007-2008 writers strike? That impacted everything from cable news to entire seasons of Lost and Supernatural.

The IATSE, which last held a strike in 1945, made it clear that no one in the unions wants to strike, and were instead hoping that this would fortify their position at the bargaining table, and force the studios to sit back down and hear them out. There's a high demand for workers as studios are still scrambling to make up for the lost COVID year, so they feel there's no better time than now to negotiate for fairer conditions.

Later Monday evening, AMPTP released a statement agreeing to go back to the bargaining table on Tuesday, October 5:

"[The AMPTP] remains committed to reaching an agreement that will keep the industry working. We deeply value our IATSE crew members and are committed to working with them to avoid shutting down the industry at such a pivotal time, particularly since the industry is still recovering from the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. A deal can be made at the bargaining table, but it will require both parties working together in good faith with a willingness to compromise and to explore new solutions to resolve the open issues."

Aside from an actual strike, this is exactly the result that the historic strike authorization vote called for, and anyone who consumes any sort of filmed or live media entertainment content (that is, all of us) should be thrilled. Let's keep our fingers crossed that below-the-line workers get livable job conditions after this.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.