Hollywood faces new crisis in strike threat from off-screen workers who keep productions running

·5 min read

LOS ANGELES - They never appear on-screen, but Hollywood couldn't function without the set builders, costume designers, video engineers and other behind-the-scenes workers who keep the lights on and cameras rolling for the stars.

Now, for the first time in decades, these workers are threatening to go on strike in a move that could cripple the entertainment industry - even as it has vastly ramped up production to feed viewers' seemingly insatiable desire to stream movies and TV shows on demand.

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The union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, began voting Friday morning on whether to authorize a strike, with electronic balloting continuing through Sunday night and an announcement expected Monday. A vote to authorize a strike doesn't guarantee a walkout, but would hand union leaders a powerful tool to try to exact better terms in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. And if the crew members did end up striking, it would be the biggest work stoppage in Hollywood since TV and movie writers went on strike for 14 weeks in late 2007.

"In the short run it would shut everything down," said Glenn Williamson, a producer and former studio executive who teaches at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. "The people in the guilds - they're the lifeblood of a production."

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At the heart of the dispute is how workers are compensated for the content available on streaming platforms like Netflix, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video.

These streaming services have dramatically altered the landscape in Hollywood in recent years, turning production into a year-round endeavor with no downtime, instead of a seasonal one with slow periods built in. The pressure on the workforce has grown intense, especially as the industry works overtime to make up for lost production during the pandemic and satisfy the demand for content that emerged while Americans were stuck at home.

"The pressures of the industry and the feeling of this hamster wheel of work have just increased and increased because of the ever-expanding need for content because of all of the additional streaming platforms," said Marisa Shipley, an art department coordinator who is vice president of Local 871 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "Right now it does feel like we as crew are being asked to work as much as possible as quickly as possible to give them all the content possible, and crews are at a breaking point."

Some 60,000 union members, the majority on the West Coast, are participating in the strike vote, which comes after months of rancorous and collapsed negotiations. For their part, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) argues they've already made generous concessions, including agreeing to improvements in rest periods, and paying nearly $400 million to address a pension and health plan deficit. They contend the union is walking away from a good deal.

"The AMPTP put forth a deal-closing comprehensive proposal that meaningfully addresses the IATSE's key bargaining issues," the AMPTP said in a statement. "In choosing to leave the bargaining table to seek a strike authorization vote, the IATSE leadership walked away from a generous comprehensive package."

Some of the core issues in the dispute are the same ones that emerge in many labor fights - compensation, pension and health care security, and break time.

What's different is that crew members say their contracts haven't caught up with the new reality in Hollywood, where major streaming services reap billions and pour big money into high-end productions- yet some of the workers make just at or slightly above minimum wage. Pay scales for streaming platforms tend to be lower than traditional media productions because of terms that were negotiated before streaming services established the dominant position they now hold in Hollywood. Union members argue it's time for that to change.

"Nobody who works on a multimillion-dollar big-budget picture should have to work out of their car and choose between food and electricity," said Jonas Loeb, who serves as communications director for the IATSE union. "What nobody can doubt at this point is the pandemic has got folks thinking, and it's changed our relationship with how we work, when we work, and how we want to work."

Crew members complain of exhaustion from working long hours, of getting paid so poorly they can't make rent and of intense pressure to skip meals so they can stay on-set and keep working.

However, it's not just behind-the-scene workers who are fighting Hollywood over payment from streaming content. Scarlett Johansson just settled a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Disney over her compensation from starring in Black Widow after the studio released the film on streaming service Disney Plus at the same time it was unveiled in theaters. Big-name actors like Danny DeVito and Jane Fonda have rallied to the side of the workers' cause.

Union members says their gripes are not with actors or writers, as they are represented by different unions under different terms. But there is a parity issue since actors, writers and showrunners often are allowed more rest time and are paid more than the crews who make it possible for the show to go on.

Shipley said that actors and the other better-compensated workers may not have fully understood the plight of the crew members working by their side until the labor dispute put it front and center. 

The unions says they hope they can avoid a strike. But if they strike, it would be the first by behind-the-scenes crew members since World War II, when violent clashes broke out outside studio headquarters in Burbank in a confrontation known as "Bloody Friday."

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