IATSE’s Labor Push Is Part of Broader Worker Struggle Across U.S.

IATSE isn’t working alone when it comes to pressing for better labor conditions.

As Hollywood waits to see whether the union that represents thousands of technicians and craftspeople will go on strike as part of an effort to improve on-set working conditions, the rest of the country has already seen similar maneuvers from workers in a broad range of industries.

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Approximately 10,000 workers at Deere & Co, the large agricultural products manufacturer, went on strike Thursday in a bid to win better wages and incentives, even after their union, the United Automobile Workers, had struck a new contract proposal with the company. More than 1,000 employees went on strike last week at Kellogg, the large cereal and food manufacturer. Mondelez International, which makes Nabisco products, had to grapple with a work stoppage this past summer. And the nation’s eye turned earlier this year to an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, where the large e-commerce retailer proved able to fend off one of the biggest drives yet to unionize some portion of its workers

“We are seeing what may be the biggest part of a new strike wave, in which workers are expressing their unwillingness to put up with intolerable conditions. That’s happening in health care. It’s happening in coal mines. It’s happening at Kellogg. It’s happening at Nabisco,” says Benjamin Sachs, a professor at Harvard Law School who studies labor law and labor relations. “It’s really cutting across sectors.”

IATSE officials on Wednesday set a deadline to reach an agreement with the industry’s major production studios by early Monday morning. Without a new pact that improves hours and working conditions, union members will stop working across the U.S. at 12:01 a.m. on October 18. The union is in discussions with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and is seeking a 10-hour turnaround between shifts for all workers, as well as a 54-hour turnaround on weekends. Officials are also seeking penalties for productions that don’t stop work for lunch and an end to lower rates paid by streaming services.

It’s easy to attribute the IATSE move to the recent coronavirus pandemic. Every studio must contend with a bevy of health and safety protocols that add costs to each piece of content being produced. But labor experts believe the union’s push to win new concessions is part of a cycle that has obvious ties to past moments in American history. Workers have often sought to recalibrate their relationship with employers after seismic events like World War II and the Great Depression.

Labor groups won new collective bargaining rights in 1935 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the pressure for those benefits came with “massive, massive strikes, many of them illegal, that began in 1932 and continued up until 1935,” says Jane McAlevey, a senior policy fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

Similar union efforts were taking place prior to the current pandemic, she notes, including a strike by 7,700 workers across dozens of hotels owned by Marriott in 2018. Coronavirus conditions, she adds, have pushed other employees to reconsider what conditions are acceptable in a variety of workplaces, including hospitals and fast-food restaurants.

“Overall, we have seen a surge in labor activism. There has been tremendous discontent coming especially from essential workers, those people who have been performing their jobs during the pandemic, and putting their lives on the line,” notes Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at UCLA. “In many instances they have been making very poor wages and receiving substandard benefits.”

IATSE’s work has been held up as an example of a larger national struggle. “At this moment, 60,000 film and television workers of the IATSE who make our favorite shows and movies are bargaining at the table right now,” said Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, in remarks she made earlier this week in Washington, DC, adding: “The pandemic laid bare the inequities of our system, and as we try to get beyond COVID, working people are refusing to return the crappy jobs with low pay. Potential workers are tired of being spanked one day and then treated as expendable.”

Some labor experts believe IATSE’s efforts have momentum. They are impressed by IATSE’s willingness to reveal not just what percentage of voters authorized a strike, but what percentage of membership voted overall. Both totals show overwhelming support, they say. And the union’s demands don’t seem particularly onerous. “I think the demands of the entertainment workers are very reasonable,” says Mary Anne Trasciatti, director of labor studies at Hofstra University. “People aren’t asking for the moon. They are asking for safe workplaces, living wages and humane treatment.”

Success will depend on whether the studios believe they can find equally skilled labor during a strike, the experts suggest — and that may not be possible, particularly as the entertainment industry is under pressure to keep churning out new programming for a raft of recently launched streaming services, and while advertisers are paying top dollar for live sports broadcasts.

The current labor movement is enjoying broader support among Americans, says Sachs, the Harvard Law professor. Given recent workforce trends, he says, “if I were management, I would be concerned.”

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