Contract negotiations leading up to the tentative agreement that IATSE members will be voting on this weekend were unlike any that had come before. Conducted after the film and TV industry roared back to life from the darkest days of the pandemic, the giant media conglomerates came to the bargaining table demanding a wide range of rollbacks in pay and benefits, which the union successfully thwarted after members, for the first time ever, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.
“The tone and tenor of negotiations this time was much different from what we’ve experienced in previous years,” wrote Thom Davis, business manager of Grips Local 80 and IATSE’s 2nd international vice president, in a recent message to his members. “Not only was it more difficult because it was conducted via Zoom, but there was a very corporate feel to it. And I should add, there was a good amount of arrogance in the mix as well. It was a very difficult round, as evidenced by the fact that we were forced to take a strike vote to get the employers to move on our key issues.”
He added: “I think there were several reasons for all this. First you have the fact that the industry has seen a good deal of consolidation over the last few years. We are now negotiating with people who are representing large media corporations versus studios and production companies. Warner Bros. is now Warner Media, which is a division of AT&T. Universal Studios and NBC are now NBCUniversal, which is a division of Comcast. Paramount and CBS are now under the corporate banner of Viacom. And of course, we can’t leave out Disney Studios and Fox with their multi-billion dollar merger. Along with these companies’ march on mergers and acquisitions, came the challenges and difficulties of negotiating with them.”
Davis, who is urging members to ratify the contract, cited several rollbacks proposed by the companies.
“We had to fight back employer attacks,” he wrote. “As we entered negotiations, the employers demanded that hours required for a qualified pension year be more than doubled. They proposed that in order to shorten the workday, they be allowed to work us 11 hours straight without a meal break without paying any meal penalties. They proposed wage increases of 1%, with no increase or modification of Streaming. They proposed that what remains of night premiums be eliminated.”
He noted, however, that after nearly 99% of the voting members voted to authorize a strike, all of the companies’ proposals “were rejected and ultimately withdrawn.”
Instead of 1% pay raises, the tentative agreement calls for 3% annual pay hikes retroactive to August 1, 2021. “We made some major gains in wages this round,” wrote Davis, who is one of the union’s most effective explainers of the proposed new film and TV contract, which, if ratified, would affect some 60,000 workers. “Because of the continued trend of the expansion of Streaming, it is estimated that about half of our members, at any given time, are working on streaming projects. It was imperative that this was the area that we focused on. There is no doubt that this is where the future lies, and some are predicting that soon Streaming will be to network TV what network TV is to Cable today.”
Under the proposed deal, pay rates on all high- and mid-budget subscription-based streaming shows would go from being paid at the union’s Movie of the Week rates to its significantly higher TV sideletter rates. “To give an example of what this means on a Tier 1 for the 20 minutes to 35 minutes program,” Davis explained, “the increase will range from 7.56% to as high as 17.61%, depending on the classification.”
With regards to the union’s pension and health plans, he noted that “the Employers will be making additional hourly contributions totaling approximately $273 million over the life of the contract.”
But “first and foremost,” he wrote, “there will be No changes to the Plans. It should be noted that the employers initially proposed that our members divert 1% of their Individual Account Plan contributions to the Health Plan. They really do believe that our members should be paying into the Health Plan. For them it’s more philosophical than monetary.” The Individual Account Plan (IAP) is a retirement plan that’s 100% funded by employer contributions.
Davis also put to rest “the rumor that the [Pension & Health] Plans do not receive any residuals from Streaming,” pointing out that in 2020, the Plans “received $215.4 million in residuals from Streaming, which was 43.5% of all residuals collected that year by the Plans.”
Rest periods and meal breaks were two of the union’s top quality-of-life priorities going into the talks, and gains were made there as well.
“All members, with the exception of those employed through a studio department, will receive 10 hours rest period between shifts regardless of whether they are working ‘on’ production or ‘off’ production, regardless of the type of project,” Davis noted. “The reason for the exception is that we wanted to be careful that by extending the rest period for members who are employed through the departments who work on the change-overs don’t lose a shift of work due to the extended turnarounds.
“This is an issue,” he wrote, “that we cracked the door open in the last round of negotiations (in 2018), and an example of making gains in one contract cycle with an eye on the next round.”
The proposed deal also provides that “there will now be a weekend rest period of 54 hours for a five-day week,” he wrote, adding that “the weekend rest period will be 32 hours. In the event a member works their sixth day of the seventh day of the work week, there is to be a 32-hour rest period between the end of the fifth day and the beginning of the sixth day. This means that for production to have the normal start time of 7:00 am on Monday, they can work you no later than 1:00 am on the Friday prior, thereby putting an end to Fraturdays” — a term that denotes the gobbling up of weekends.
The proposed contract also puts more teeth into meal penalties. “To many of our members,” Davis wrote, “they have been subjected to the practice of the employers just buying out the meal penalties for the entire day, which denies our members from not only being (able) to eat in a civilized way, but also denies them the ability to get off your feet for a half hour.”
The tentative agreement also calls for a paid holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as well as new diversity and inclusion provisions.
Davis also called for civility among members as they prepare to vote for or against ratification.
“I would also like to ask that as we are making our decision on how to vote, let’s all be civil and respectful to one another. It is understandable that emotions run high on an issue such as this, but I would say that this is the time where we should be standing with each other in respecting each person’s opinion. Each member will be voting based on what they think is best for them, and their family. For some, the tentative Agreement will not satisfy their wants and desires. For others, they will recognize the gains that were made and use this to build on for the future.”