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Hollywood’s Unions Had Their Finest Hour In The Year Of Pandemic

In the hardest year, Hollywood’s unions had their finest hour. Together and separately, they navigated those first uncertain days of the entertainment industry shutdown a year ago this week and came together with the major companies to develop protocols to get their members back to work as safely as possible. Their rallying cry was, “We’re all in this together.”

By the end of that first terrible week, tens of thousands of their members would find themselves suddenly unemployed, with no end in sight to the staggering loss of jobs.

A report from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts estimates that 63% of the arts work force remained fully unemployed as of December and that 95% had reported income loss because of the pandemic. According to the report, the average arts worker lost $22,000 in creativity-based income last year. IATSE alone reported that 120,000 of its 150,000 members were out of work by the end of that first week as film and television production ground to a halt and theatrical venues shuttered everywhere.

IATSE Local 33, the 1,700-member stagehands union in Los Angeles, has been among the industry’s hardest-hit unions, and three of its members have died from Covid-19. “Approximately 60% of our workforce is still not working due to the shutdown of live entertainment, theaters and movie theaters,” said Ronnie Valentine, the local’s business rep for television/shops. “There are still over 400 daily jobs not active that are ‘guaranteed work’ on a normal basis.”

The local itself, he said, also has been “greatly impacted in a negative way. We recently put $1.5 million into a fund so that the members who are losing health insurance due to no work can get some assistance transitioning into a COBRA plan until work resumes. We have already spent $2.2 million in extending healthcare for four months, which ran out in November. But we are unable to continue that process with no income to the union itself.”

He added, “We see a possible decrease in membership once this is done, but we are trying to stay optimistic that during the summer the industry will open back up for live entertainment and we expect to be busier than ever with everybody trying to make up for lost time.”

Every other industry union has been hit just as hard – none more so than Actors’ Equity, whose members suffered nearly 100% unemployment because of the closure of live theater. Except for voice-over work in animation and commercials, which can be recorded remotely, SAG-AFTRA members also faced record joblessness. So too have musicians, directors and their directorial teams.

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The early days

In that first week of the pandemic, the unions shut down their offices to visitors and non-essential workers, and in the coming days they began furloughing many of their staff, while putting others on shorter hours – though many say they’re actually working longer hours, on-call around the clock. But throughout it all, they still managed to provide essential services to their members, including much-needed residuals checks and pension and health benefits. And as the crisis deepened, they provided loans to their members in need, and deferred dues payments; like their members, Hollywood’s unions have taken a major financial hit.

SAG-AFTRA reduced its staff by nearly one-third. “As productions shut down across the industry, we took steps to protect core member services and the financial health of the institution,” SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White told Deadline. “That included reducing our staff by a significant percentage – just over 30%. We’ve been very open with our members about this fact. However, we must always think strategically, and during this time we have focused on innovating our operations to prepare for the future. As a result, the organization is more resilient and much better prepared to protect our members in the new technological age.

“As our finances grow again and we think about our post-pandemic staffing needs, we are now well positioned to ensure that we can fulfill our charge to our members: to protect and empower them as they strive to earn a living in a very difficult environment. As a professional advocate, letting employees go is an incredibly painful thing to do, but what is essential is to take such measures in the most ethical and strategic way possible. As we emerge from the pandemic and see the positive results of our decisions, our entire executive team is eager to rebuild. We are optimistic about the future of this union and about the growth and strength of our membership.”

By early June, the Industry-Wide Labor Management Safety Committee Task Force had issued a 22-page “White Paper” for the safe return to work, which heralded the reopening of film and TV production in California and New York after a near-complete shutdown that lasted 2½ months.

That’s not uncommonly long for many who work in show business, where stretches of unemployment are to be expected, but thousands of actors also lost their day jobs, leaving them without any income at all. Expanded state and federal unemployment benefits and eviction moratoriums spared many from insolvency, but union members don’t pay dues on their unemployment benefits. With less money coming in, the unions cut costs, but have had to do more with less for 12 months and counting. During the pandemic, less work for members meant more work for unions. And with smaller staffs.

Every Hollywood union and guild – except the WGA and the American Federation of Musicians, which technically are not production unions – took part in the drafting of the White Paper guidelines, which were submitted on June 2 to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, allowing production to resume in those states.

Two weeks later, the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters issued their “Safe Way Forward,” a set of protocols that were conceived and initially drafted by a DGA committee of working members, based upon close consultation with infectious disease epidemiologists and other experts. Simultaneously but independently, SAG-AFTRA had been working on its own protocols through its President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Safety, its staff, and expert consultants. IATSE was also engaged in a similar process with its own experts. SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters all subsequently joined with the DGA in the effort to create the protocols.

“This pandemic has shined a spotlight on the important role the entertainment guilds and unions play for our members, and for the industry,” DGA president Thomas Schlamme told Deadline. “Covid-19 was perhaps the biggest disruption any of us have ever experienced. From the very beginning, the extraordinary challenge of getting our members and the industry back to work was at the top of our minds, but we could not do that without first ensuring it could happen safely.”

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“We knew and were committed from the start that science would lead the way,” he said. “The DGA consulted with the best virology and epidemiology experts out there, and brilliantly led by our national executive director Russell Hollander, we convened a member committee, chaired by Steven Soderbergh, to guide us through the process. We collaborated with SAG-AFTRA, the IATSE and Teamsters to develop industry-leading protocols because we all knew how important it would be for us to stand together. We published the Safe Way Forward report in June, and in a groundbreaking show of solidarity, we negotiated jointly with multiple employers to make sure we got this right. To date, the protocols have allowed the industry to resume production with low incidence of Covid-19 transmission, and we continue to work together to monitor new developments and make adjustments as necessary.”

Although the initial White Paper offered a foundation for state agencies to allow the resumption of production, and provided guidance for employers to follow, it expressly noted that the specific protocols regarding mandatory testing, personal protective equipment and department-specific procedures “would be the subject of further discussions and agreement between the producers and the unions.”

In September, an agreement was reached on a final set of protocols, codified into contract language, after lengthy negotiations between the film and TV companies – led by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers – and the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and Hollywood Teamsters Local 399. It took longer than many union leaders would have liked, but it was better than getting it wrong.

Those protocols, which made TV and film sets some of the safest workplaces in the country, established guidelines that included mandatory testing for Covid-19, mandatory Covid-19 compliance officers, symptom screening, masks and other PPE, physical distancing, disinfection and maintenance, paid leave policies, and a system of “zones” to ensure that different sections of a production could be tightly controlled to establish barriers within which those on set can move about based on proximity to cast.

SAG-AFTRA national executive director David WhiteThe protocols and our process have served as a model for other industries and have achieved all of this without significant battles between management and labor. This is a huge success. I doubt you can find another industry that achieved similar success without government mandate or intervention.”

The 57-page document they produced expires on April 30, and the unions and companies are now gearing up to renegotiate it. The companies and the unions have been making minor adjustments to the protocols as conditions evolved, but Covid-19 vaccinations have not been required for cast and crew members. That could change, however, now that vaccines are becoming more generally available. SAG-AFTRA said earlier this month that “from the start of the pandemic, safety and a safer return to work have been a priority for SAG-AFTRA. Vaccinations are the most vital part in the next phase of combating this virus and getting back to work safely.”

And by all accounts, the protocols have worked. In January, SAG-AFTRA called them “a remarkable success,” and the DGA said they have been “largely effective in catching infected individuals before they are contagious, and limiting the potential spread on set.”

“Every union and every studio hired a team of public health experts to inform our leadership about the dangers of this new virus,” said SAG-AFTRA’s White. “We then each formulated our own plans to build a safe production environment. The unions then came together to build a singular plan while the studios did the same. Then all the parties spent hours each day for weeks to work through every detail of each one of our plans to build a general industry-wide plan to keep everyone safe while continuing to produce during a health crisis that happens once, hopefully, in a century.”

“Frankly,” he said, “it is not surprising that this took the length of the summer to achieve. I am thrilled to say that, once established, our safety protocols have indeed kept our members safe while working. The protocols and our process have served as a model for other industries and have achieved all of this without significant battles between management and labor. This is a huge success. I doubt you can find another industry that achieved similar success without government mandate or intervention.”

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Working together

Union solidarity never has been greater than during the pandemic. Hollywood’s unions have sponsored numerous programs to help their members deal with everything from honing their skills for when jobs return, to mental health and food insecurity. IATSE, working with food banks across the country, has delivered thousands of meals, not only to its own members, but to members of other industry unions as well.

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Separately, whether they endorsed candidates or not, Hollywood’s unions also went full-out to turn out the vote that saw Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win the November election, turn the Senate blue and keep labor-friendly Democrats in control of the House.

And together they banded together to lobby Congress to pass the $2 trillion CARES Act, part of which expanded key benefits for hundreds of thousands of industry workers who lost jobs because of the coronavirus shutdown of film, TV and theater productions across the country. Signed by President Donald Trump last March, it expanded unemployment benefits for many of the industry’s suddenly unemployed workers, and added an extra $600 a week on top of their regular state unemployment benefits for four months, as well as $1,200 in direct payments to most taxpayers.

Last month, leaders of the DGA, SAG-AFTRA and IATSE lobbied congressional leaders again – this time to work with President Biden to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, saying that it will provide “much-needed relief for the current crisis and address long-standing vulnerabilities in our economy.” Passed by Congress, Biden signed the bill into law on Thursday.

Business as (not) usual

And while the pandemic impacted virtually every aspect of the unions’ operations, there was still the usual work of unions to be done. Pandemic or not, 2020 saw the renegotiation of film and TV contracts by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA and the WGA.

The DGA reached an agreement with the AMPTP for a new film and TV contract on March 4 – just days before the shutdown began – and its members ratified it April 3. The new agreement, which set the pattern of bargaining for the other guilds to follow, achieved significant gains in residuals for new shows made for streaming, which DGA leaders hailed as “a major victory for our members.”

The DGA noted that throughout the pandemic, it “worked hard to support members across all fronts, negotiating for additional pay, fast-tracking residuals, and providing dues relief.”

SAG-AFTRA was next to bargain for a new film and TV contract, reaching an agreement with the AMPTP on June 11 that it said would boost members’ incomes by $318 million over three years, and included gains in residuals for original shows made for high-budget streaming platforms. In August, the union negotiated a new TV animation contract, and last month, promulgated its first-ever contract covering “influencers.”

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The pandemic even changed the way SAG-AFTRA governed itself – at least temporarily. In the first weeks of the pandemic, SAG-AFTRA’s board voted to give the union’s 38-person executive committee the authority to take actions on behalf of the board during “this time of extraordinary national emergency.” The board resumed its authority, however, in time to vote to kick Trump out of the union for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and to permanently ban him from rejoining after he resigned, petty as ever, before he could be expelled.

The WGA, meanwhile, averted a strike during the pandemic by reaching an eleventh-hour agreement with the AMPTP for its own new film and TV contact on July 1. The deal achieved many of the terms sought by the guild, but the pandemic clearly reduced its bargaining power, with the WGA negotiating committee noting that “although the ongoing global pandemic and economic uncertainty limited our ability to exercise real collective power to achieve many other important and necessary contract goals, we remain committed to pursuing those goals in future negotiations.”

And throughout the pandemic, the WGA continued to pursue, and finally win, its nearly two-year battle with the major talent agencies, securing an historic victory last month with the signing of WME – the last agency holdout – to its franchise agreement. The deal, which ended a long-running legal fight, will ban packaging fees by 2022 and limit the agencies’ ownership interests in affiliated production companies to just 20%, ending the major agencies’ conflicted business practices by returning them to a 10% commissioning business model not seen in decades. The unparalleled victory, led by WGA West executive director David Young and president David A. Goodman, was won by the unwavering solidarity of WGA members who fired their agents en masse who refused to agree to the guild’s code of conduct.

Funds move forward

The pandemic kept people apart, but it also brought union leaders and their members together like never before, all in pursuit of the common good. Providing financial assistance was key to unions’ efforts to keep their members afloat.

In the first week of the shutdown, IATSE’s General Executive Board committed $2.5 million to The Actors Fund, the Motion Picture & Television Fund, and The Actors Fund of Canada to be distribute to IATSE members in need “during this dire time.”
Ten days into the lockdown, Actors’ Equity announced the creation of the Actors’ Equity Emergency Curtain Up Fund, and issued a grant to The Actors Fund to provide support for members at risk due to work cancellations resulting from Covid-19. Actors’ Equity contributed $500,000 to launch the fund and pledged to match another $250,000 in contributions from other donors, dollar for dollar.

Last March, the Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600, allocated $500,000 to its Hardship Fund to provide $1,000 grants to members in need who’d lost their jobs, and gave its members 100% dues relief for the dues-paying quarter beginning April 1. The Editors Guild, IATSE Local 600, followed suit, reducing dues by 50% for the second quarter of 2020. Nearly all the industry’s unions and guilds would give their members dues relief, including SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, Actors’ Equity, the Producers Guild, IATSE Grips Local 80, IATSE Prop Local 44, IATSE Costumers Local 705, Costume Designers Guild IATSE Local 892, IATSE Make-Up & Hair Stylists Guild Local 706, Hollywood’s Teamsters Local 399 and L.A.’s Musicians Local 47.

On April 2, the Directors Guild Foundation announced the creation of a Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund to aid members facing financial crisis. The grants from this new Fund were in addition to the Foundation’s longstanding interest-free loan program that offered aid to members experiencing financial hardships and emergencies. Later that month, the trustees of the DGA-Producer Pension and Health Plans announced that they would allow participants to take up to $20,000 in loans against their Supplemental Benefit Plan’s retirement funds “to assist participants experiencing financial hardship during the unprecedented work stoppage during the COVID-19 crisis.”

In May, Hollywood’s Teamsters Local 399 approved an Emergency Recovery Fund that allocated up to $500,000 from the Local’s treasury, to be administered by the Motion Picture & Television Fund, to assist members who “have found themselves in extreme financial hardship because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The WGA West, which during its battle with the talent agencies had launched a series of initiatives to help its agentless members find jobs, is providing interest-free loans of up to $14,000 to members in need through its Good and Welfare Emergency Assistance Fund.

The American Federation of Musicians also set up a Musicians’ Relief Fund to assist members “confronting extraordinary financial challenges” as a result of the pandemic.

But the SAG-AFTRA Foundation outdid them all. By November, it had distributed more than $6 million in Covid-19 emergency relief to more than 6,500 of the union’s members and their families in need.

During the crisis, SAG-AFTRA also became a leader in the field of member outreach, hosting webinars, seminars and summits on everything from unemployment assistance, equity and inclusion, and the back-to-work protocols, to wellness and mental health, casting and acting tips, labor innovation and technology, and changes to the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan. The union also hosted conversations with political leaders on a wide variety of issues affecting its members. Zoom meetings sprang up everywhere; SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris was virtually omnipresent.

“The pandemic has magnified and clarified, beyond question, that in this day and age workers of all industries need to have the support and backing of a collective voice,” Carteris said. “We have seen that without the unified collective, it is every person for themselves.”

“During the pandemic,” she said, “it was entertainment content that helped people manage through the turmoil. It was entertainment industry unions that drove the design of safety protocols and practices that helped ensure a safer workplace. It was the work of our union, in conjunction with the entire labor movement, that helped secure pandemic relief and support for American citizens.

“Unions are people. Union members are at the forefront of the fight to level the playing feel and to care for our citizens in this terrible time. Union members like nurses, teachers, janitors, grocery workers, first responders in many other fields kept the country going allowing many of us to stay safely in our homes. Union members protected us during the pandemic and they are driving our recovery.”

“When I speak to members, what they share is their pride in SAG-AFTRA membership,” she said. “Their personal stories represent the moments in their careers where they have been grateful for the union’s help, support or service. They have expressed their gratitude for the protocols that help us get back to work, the safety standards and procedures for sexually explicit scenes, and the educational and informational seminars, podcasts and other content we have made available during the pandemic. Members have personally let me know how grateful they are for the work we do bargaining and enforcing contracts and preserving their residuals.”

SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle CarterisThe pandemic has magnified and clarified, beyond question, that in this day and age workers of all industries need to have the support and backing of a collective voice.

She says he discovered her own appreciation for the union when she was partially paralyzed on a set in Canada, during a fight scene, nearly 14 years ago. “Until that point, the union was just a building occupied with lawyers negotiating my contracts. I discovered the real union when I reached out for help and they were there to give me support. The union and our members spoke on my behalf and I have been of service ever since. It has been, and is, an honor to work with and on behalf of my fellow brothers and sisters. I have learned the true meaning of strength in unity.”

It should be noted that Carteris – like Schlamme at the DGA, Goodman at the WGA West and Beau Willimon at the WGA East and all of their numerous vice presidents, secretary-treasurers, and board, council and committee members – receive no pay for their service. The same is true for Actors’ Equity president Kate Shindle, most of the leaders of IATSE’s locals, and many of the industry’s other unions as well. Their staffs and executives are paid, but for the most part, the elected leadership of the industry’s unions are unpaid volunteers.

And although the unions came together like never before, there were still occasional internal and internecine battles. In October, SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity became embroiled in a bitter jurisdictional dispute over the taping of live stage presentations. Because of the shuttering of live theater across the country, Equity figured it could put its members back to work by allowing producers to tape shows without audiences.

SAG-AFTRA, however, insisted that taped presentations have always fallen under its jurisdiction and contracts, but offered its sister union a waiver to help out their fellow actors during the coronavirus shutdown. The dispute was settled, after some heated exchanges, in November when SAG-AFTRA agreed – without ceding its jurisdiction – that Equity could cover the work during the pandemic period, with a term ending on December 31, 2021, subject to certain limitations, including a prohibition of distribution of the taped shows on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other streaming services.

SAG-AFTRA was not without internal dissent either, even during the pandemic. The massive loss of jobs, and the resulting loss of contributions to its already ailing Health Plan, forced the Plan’s trustees to raise premiums and eligibility thresholds, effective January 1, 2021. Dissidents, led by former SAG president Ed Asner, argued that the changes disproportionately affected older members, and filed suit, claiming age discrimination – a charge the trustees vehemently deny. That dispute is ongoing.

The massive loss of jobs has caused thousands of industry workers to lose their union health coverage, and the resulting loss of employer contributions to the plans has created a significant drain on their reserves.

To help members keep their health benefits, trustees of the DGA-Producers Pension & Health Plans offered three separate rounds of premium-free COBRA coverage to members who lost their health coverage during the pandemic. In August, the trustees said the move was made in recognition of “the continued shutdown of production since mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak, and the impact this has on participants.” The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows eligible employees who have lost their jobs to continue receiving health benefits.

On Oct. 1, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan began offering an 80% reduction in COBRA premiums for participants who no longer qualified for coverage, saying that “Despite the serious financial challenges facing the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan, Plan trustees are committed to helping as many participants keep their health coverage as is sustainable for the Plan.” That reduction came on the heels of a 50% premium reduction for the second quarter of 2020 for active and COBRA participants.

In its response to the pandemic, the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans, which coverers West Coast members of IATSE and many other below-the-line workers, granted up to six months of special no-cost COBRA coverage beginning on November 1 for those who met its enrollment requirements. The Plan noted that it “is aware that many Participants are experiencing an unexpected reduction in hours due to coronavirus-related production shutdowns that may impact future health plan eligibility.”

Protesters march on a street during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died on Memorial Day after being taken into custody by Minneapolis police, in Los Angeles, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Floyd died after a police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Protesters march in Los Angeles over the police killing of George Floyd in May AP

Social justice takes center stage

In the middle of the pandemic, virtually all of the industry’s unions and guilds also responded to the social justice movement and the Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked by the death of George Floyd last May, leading several unions to re-examine their own roles in the lack of diversity among the ranks of their members.

In June, IATSE’s leadership acknowledged the union’s role in failing to upend “systemic racism in the arts and entertainment industry.” Calling for industrywide action, they vowed to do the “hard work” needed to “create real, lasting change.”

“We have not always lived up to our own values and ideals of unionism, through our action, inaction, apathy, and at times ambivalence,” IATSE president Matt Loeb and the union’s entire executive board said in a statement. “For too long, we have turned a blind eye to the need for our workspaces to represent all members of our society, and for all workers to have an equal opportunity to enter the entertainment industry. We can do better. We must do better. We will do better.”

That same month, Actors’ Equity, acknowledged its “historic culpability in perpetuating inequity.” And on that same day, the 4,300-member Stage Directors and Choreographers Society conceded its “own responsibility” for the lack of Broadway jobs for its members of color.

The DGA and the WGA West both released TV diversity reports during the pandemic – time consuming surveys that show how far the industry has come, and how far it still has to go, to achieve equity.

Citing steady gains for women and underrepresented TV writers over the past five years, the WGA West’s Inclusion Report, released in June, said that “If these trends continue, women and people of color could achieve parity in TV employment within the next two years.” The report, however, noted that “In spite of this progress, systemic discrimination against writers from underrepresented groups remains pervasive in the entertainment industry.” And in December, the WGA West issued a set of community standards to address issues of bias, discrimination, inequity, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace.

The DGA Inclusion Report, released last month, found that the share of episodic TV shows directed by women and people of color has reached “new highs,” with women directing more than a third of TV episodes in the 2019-20 season, and directors of color helming nearly a third of the episodes. Latinos and women of color, however, “continued to be severely underrepresented despite their sizable and growing presence in the population.”

Also last month, leaders of SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, IATSE, the WGA East and Actors Equity, along with leaders from several other entertainment unions, outlined their legislative agenda to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts, entertainment and media industries, and called on Congress to pass a flurry of legislation to increase federal arts funding; establish diversity objectives for grant recipients; to leverage federal tax incentives to encourage diverse hiring, and to protect the rights of unions to organize nonunion workers. “As unions, we hold a fundamental belief that diversity is a strength,” the union leaders said in a joint statement.

“As we have sheltered in place, we have witnessed the realities of systemic racism,” Carteris told Deadline. “The pandemic opened a window into this truth for many citizens of this country who before had not given diversity, equity and justice much thought.”

Inclusion, after all, is just another way of saying: “We’re all in this together.”

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