Twenty-Hour Days, 100-Hour Weeks, No Lunch Breaks: An IATSE Member Talks Working Conditions
On Monday, 59,000-member Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) announced the results of a strike authorization vote by members. An astounding 99 percent of voting members, with 90 percent turnout, voted to allow the union to call its first nationwide strike in its 100-plus year history. Bargaining with the industry resumed Tuesday.
The major sticking points in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the industry in bargaining, are:
- Excessive hours;
- Low wages;
- Break time; and
- Reduced wages on streaming media productions, compared to traditional television and film.
Prior to the vote, Cerena E. of Austin Democratic Socialists of America spoke with Don M., a special effects worker and rank-and-file IATSE member about working conditions and how negotiations were going with management. A lightly edited republished transcript of the interview is below -Editors.
Cerena E: Can you describe your day-to-day?
Don M: I am in special effects. I am more of a shop guy than a set guy, so my work day goes from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., five days a week, so 60 hours a week of work. Usually, they’ll have some gag that they’ll want us to build or some effect they want, so we’ll build a prototype. Then, when they want to shoot it on camera during the day, we’ll go out to set and run it, whether it be a car crash, people being thrown against a wall, explosions, or we’re just making it rain or windy.
Is there a hard limit to how long y’all work for?
We definitely do work over 60 hours a week—that is actually considered our baseline. So no, not really. I’ve worked 20-hour days before.
That’s insane. How does that work?
So the way that film works and the way that our union works is that they are not required to give us meal breaks. But they have to pay us meal penalties when they delay when we should have a break. So usually six hours after they start, they’re supposed to give you a lunch break. This usually happens on set—in the shop it’s pretty regular that you get your break. But when you’re shooting on set, they have to pay you a meal penalty for every 15 minutes they keep you working past your break. So there’s a little bit of benefit [to you] to them not feeding you.
But if we didn’t have our union, they wouldn’t do that, you know? You wouldn’t get that extra pay. So what happens a lot of the time the way that they’ll schedule their days is to what we called French hours you shoot for 10 hours straight with no break. But you make extra meal penalties, kind of like working a 12-hour day with a break.
So the union says they have to break you at a certain time otherwise there is a penalty. And the other thing is that we have turnaround time, which is the amount of time that they have to give you off before your next shift.
I worked on a production for Netflix where I did 106 hours and seven days. Working that many hours…they got so much money that they don’t care about the penalties, it feels like. The union will charge them for infringing on our turnaround time. You know, if I get off at midnight I shouldn’t be called back to work until 10 a.m. But if they say, “No, you have to be there at nine,” then that’s called a forced call, meaning that I wasn’t given my full amount of time off. And they’re supposed to be penalized by the union, which means they’re charged a fee for the forced call. The problem is that the companies have so much money. Netflix, they’re fine with it. They’ll pay whatever the fee is and they don’t care. And so that’s why our union is pushing for harsher rules around getting enough time off for people so that they’re not totally drained and worn out.
[The Instagram account] @ia_stories is basically a nonstop stream of people anonymously reporting incidents in the industry. There’s a lot of horrible stuff going on that people are aware of, and that’s why they’re willing to authorize a strike. It’s a lot of people driving home and getting into accidents because they’re falling asleep. Productions are supposed to offer hotels if you’re filming in a location far away for a certain amount of hours, but a lot of them don’t do that and then—you know.
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Can you speak to some of the things being negotiated in this contract with AMPTP
So what is going on with the strike, at least what my union has informed us about, there’s a holdout with a lot of the new streaming. The producers want to keep being considered as “new media” because there’s different rules for how they pay us and what kind of benefits we get based on the type of production it is. So say if you were working on a TV show, and it’s the first season or a pilot. They don’t have to contribute as much to your retirement, and your turnaround times are shorter. Instead of getting 10 hours off between shifts, they can get away with only giving you eight hours off. And so these companies—which are enormous: Netflix, Amazon, and Apple TV—are the ones trying to say, “Oh yeah, we’re new media. We want to have those slack rules, and we want to be able to contribute less to your benefits.” [They’re] pretending like they’re the small guys when really they have enormous power.
So, the union is saying, “No, we need longer turnaround times.” We need more support for the overnight shifts that we work and all that, but [the industry is] just not really budging.
What are the logistics of this strike authorization vote? What are some obstacles?
All the heads of our union locals had meetings with the AMPTP. But the last time we set our demands, they just didn’t even look at them, and they’re basically just not budging on anything. I think they want to see if we’re willing to strike, and that’s why the most important thing is that we do this authorization-to-strike vote and get a super high “yes” vote. We can take that to the negotiating table and say, “Look, we have authorization to strike, and we can shut down every production in the company.” The worry is that if there are enough people not aware of what’s going on in the union and we don’t get that authorization-to-strike vote passed, we’re totally screwed as far as our benefits and being treated like disposable robots.
What I keep finding out is that there are a lot of people in the industry and in the union who don’t even know how the rules work. So right now my Atlanta-based local is setting up a town hall so they can try to inform our members that the authorization-to-strike vote doesn’t mean that it will automatically happen, it just means that we’re giving the union our blessing to say “Yes, we will absolutely strike to meet these demands.”
What is it like working with others in your union? Do you as a rank-and-file worker have differing opinions from your union staff?
I’m still shocked at the amount of people in our union working in a liberal industry who still vote against their interests in general elections. There’s a lot of guys who I work with who vote Republican, and it doesn’t really make sense. But I think our union leaders try to be delicate with those people.
I think we’re all hoping that a very strong authorization vote is good enough of a bargaining chip that we don’t have to strike. We all do need to pay the bills and make money, but we’re not willing to give up any more of our benefits and health to keep these producers making more money. They can afford it, we just need to twist their arm a little bit. They have record profits all the time.
They can keep producing all the content. They just need to schedule production to take a little bit more time instead of forcing us to work 14- to 16-hour days. A lot of the people above line (“above line” refers to actors, producers, directors, and story authors -Editors) don’t realize that if they shoot for 12 hours, all the Teamsters and all of us people have to show up an hour before them and we’re there an hour after them setting up and wrapping up at the end of the day. And if they think they’re doing a standard 12, we’re working 14, minimum. If you have a 45-minute ride home, it’s like there’s no way you can get any more than six or seven hours of sleep. You don’t have time to cook food, or see anyone else outside of work, or even have a social life.
How can [people outside IATSE] support y’all during this vote?
I mean I’ve seen us getting support from Teamsters and actors, basically all just standing in solidarity and saying to the production companies, “We see how you’re treating all of the crew members that are below the line, it’s not okay.” I’ve seen some union members calling for people to cancel their subscriptions to some of the big streaming services in order to send a message along with our authorization-to-strike vote. We’re trying to say, “Hey Amazon, hey Netflix, hey Apple TV—we’re sick of the way you treat all of these people who produce all of this entertainment.” That’s the kind of message we’re trying to send.
Don M. is a special effects worker and rank-and-file IATSE member. Cerena E. is a student at the University of Texas Austin and a former UT employee with TSEU-CWA 6186. This interview was originally published on the Austin DSA blog.