Hollywood Unions Are Back at the Bargaining Table

Two major strikes by Hollywood writers and actors dominated headlines last year. Only months after the strikes’ end, contract negotiations are now underway for the entertainment industry’s crew members — and the possibility of a strike is not off the table.

IATSE joins SAG-AFTRA and WGA members on strike on September 14, 2023 in New York City. (John Nacion / Getty Images)

Just three months after members of the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) ratified their national contract in December 2023 following a hard-fought 116-day strike, Hollywood’s workers are again at the negotiating table with the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPTP). The double strike by the entertainment industry’s actors and writers — the latter ratified their own contract in October after a 148-day work stoppage — may have just wrapped up, but the contracts for the industry’s below-the-line workers, those who work off-camera, are nearing expiration. Before the industry can even catch its breath after last year’s strikes, Hollywood is once again facing an uncertain future.

Negotiations began on March 4 and encompass a host of unionized workers whose contracts expire on July 31. The thirteen West Coast Studio Locals of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) — which include workers ranging from camera operators to makeup artists and costumers — need agreements, as does IATSE Local 52, IATSE Local 161, and the Animation Guild (IATSE Local 839). Then there are the Hollywood Basic Crafts, which represents laborers like drivers, electrical workers, cement masons, and plumbers employed on film and television sets and includes the 6,500-member Teamsters Local 399 as well as International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 40, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA!) Local 724, United Association Plumbers (UA) Local 78, and Operating Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association (OPCMIA) Local 755. They, too, need contracts.

For the first time since 1988, IATSE and the Basic Crafts are jointly negotiating their shared Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans, which serve some seventy-five thousand current and retired workers. The coordination follows the shared experience of last year’s strike, in which below-the-line workers stood with actors and performers, declining to cross their picket lines and thus shutting down the industry. In January, IATSE vice president Michelle Miller said joint negotiations on the shared plans are important “not only because sustainable benefits is a shared priority of our memberships, but also because recent hardships have brought behind-the-scenes crews together in historic fashion.”

Following the joint benefit negotiations, the Basic Crafts will step aside as IATSE negotiates its Basic Agreement (covering West Coast locals) and its Area Standards Agreement, which applies to locals outside New York and Los Angeles. Teamsters Local 399 expects to begin its own talks with the AMPTP on craft-specific concerns in June.

At a joint rally in Encino’s Woodley Park on March 3, thousands of crew members and their supporters gathered in a show of unity to mark the start of negotiations. Under the banner of “Many Crafts, One Fight,” an array of labor leaders addressed the crowd, who held signs adorned with slogans like “Fighting for living wages,” and “Nothing moves without the crew.”

“Every union in the entertainment industry is standing here together, and that has never happened before,” said IATSE international president Matthew Loeb. Said Teamsters Local 399 president Lindsey Dougherty, “What’s different about going into our negotiations is that we’ve already established these relationships in a much more impactful and meaningful way in terms of labor solidarity.”

Teamsters international president Sean O’Brien referred to the studios as a “white-collar crime syndicate” (a favorite phrase of his), adding that “it’s time to make them aware that if they thought they had a fight last summer, they can’t even predict what they have now.” “We are desperate,” he said, “and being desperate is great. It means we don’t care about the consequences of our actions.”

From the microphone, California Labor Federation executive secretary-treasurer Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher led a call-and-response of “Fuck around and find out.” (A speech by Directors Guild of America president Russell Hollander drew the most lukewarm response from the crowd, the union having quickly caved during last year’s negotiations, provoking criticism and resentment across the industry’s labor movement.)

Solidarity with the striking actors and writers was a wise stance by the below-the-line workers, as the performers and writers were fighting to wrest control from executives and reign in threats to industry labor, from artificial intelligence (AI) to stagnant wages to the dwindling residuals of the streaming-platform era. The wins secured last year set a precedent for this year’s negotiations, offering a model for protections and improvements sought by IATSE and the Basic Crafts.

But the solidarity also came at a cost: the unions’ health and pension funds took a major hit from the work stoppage, a problem they now must address at the bargaining table. Members were out of work for months, and as the strike dragged on, crew members struggled to afford basic necessities; whatever savings they may have had are now significantly depleted. That helps the studios, which have demonstrated their willingness to play hardball even if it drives their workforce into destitution.

But all of that doesn’t necessarily mean the unions now at the table won’t strike if they feel they must in order to make their work sustainable going forward. Workers are against the ropes, and that’s a clarifying position in which to be.

“We will strike if we have to,” said Dougherty at the Woodley Park rally. In January, IATSE president Loeb noted, “Nothing is off the table, and we’re not going to give up our strength and our ability because they [studios] think they sapped us and everybody’s bank account got sapped because they were unreasonable for months and months.”

Plus, the studios are hurting too, and it’s unclear how they would weather another strike. A contraction of the entertainment industry was long in the making, and the disruption of last year’s strike has been followed by mass layoffs at Amazon MGM Studios, Paramount, Pixar, Prime Video, and, among other studios.

“As we enter negotiations, the AMPTP is committed to engaging in an open and productive two-way dialogue with our union partners that focuses on keeping crew members on the job without interruption, recognizes the contributions they make to motion pictures and television, and reinforces a lasting collaboration that ensures the industry and those who work in it thrive for years to come,” a spokesperson for the AMPTP told the Los Angeles Times.

IATSE members came nail-bitingly close to striking in 2021, the last time these contracts were negotiated. The strike-averse union, which has never engaged in a nationwide work stoppage, faced a groundswell of rank-and-file outcry at the time as concerns around grueling schedules and long workdays led to a determination among members to win improvements at the bargaining table. As I detailed extensively at the time, the twelve- and fourteen-hour days were a safety concern, with cases of crew members getting into car accidents after a long day foremost in workers’ minds as they pushed the negotiating committee to win longer turnaround times and higher penalties for making crew work through meal breaks.

Updated overtime provisions and rest periods remain an issue, and last year, members launched a reform caucus in hopes of democratizing the union. The union has made it clear that it will not extend the contract this time around, meaning that if a tentative agreement is not reached in July, workers will be on strike.

AI protections are also a priority for the union members. The threat AI poses to actors, who can be replaced by scanned likenesses of themselves, also applies to many below-the-line workers. Fewer performers on set means fewer hair stylists and costumers are needed too, for example, and a host of other IATSE members face similar threats to their livelihood from new technology. The Teamsters’ motion-picture division is likewise seeking guardrails on technology: computer-generated imagery can replace the need for real-life animal trainers, and autonomous vehicles are a concern for many drivers. The unions have not yet held strike-authorization votes, though IATSE president Loeb has said “it’s always possible.”

The guilds are also expected to push for a streaming residual, similar to those won by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA. Below-the-line workers do not individually receive residuals, but employers pay the equivalent of a residual into the unions’ benefit plans, an important source of funding for plans that are under more strain than ever.

Wages are also an issue, with members needing a major bump to keep up with inflation. WGA and SAG-AFTRA members received initial pay bumps of 5 percent and 7 percent, respectively — background actors got a separate 11 percent raise — and the below-the-line unions are expected to seek comparable pay increases. (IATSE’s current contracts mandate 3 percent annual raises.) Health and safety, too, are particular concerns for IATSE members, with Alec Baldwin’s fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust in 2021 infuriating long-frustrated crew.

It’s a lot to address, by workers who do an enormous range of labor. These workers will be looking to their above-the-line counterparts for solidarity this time around, returning the favor paid last year (a standing ovation for these manual laborers and their unions at this year’s Oscars suggests they may receive it). But if last year showed anything, it’s that Hollywood runs on union labor, and these days, union members are less afraid than ever of putting up a fight.