Sometimes, remembering that the “I” in IATSE stands for “International,” it might be easy to think that all film work — or certainly shows with big stars headlining the project, headed for release via one of the studios or top streaming platforms — must happen within similar parameters, in terms of how people are treated.
In other words, when working conditions in a specific industry become better here, doesn’t that make things better there?
Of course, there are reasons productions are also “outsourced” to places with few, or no, unions. They’re the same reasons manufacturing often relocates to places where unions aren’t just discouraged, but sometimes even illegal. The rationale is that this makes things more “affordable,” even if they have to be shipped halfway across the planet, to warehouses and stores where they’re bought by union and non-union workers alike.
To put it another way: You, reading this, may be happily unionized. But whether you’re reading this on your phone or your laptop, it’s fair to question the conditions under which your device was made. Indeed, the global economy is nothing if not rife with constant contradictions.
The other perception about movie work might also be a “star-based” one: Those multimillion A-listers (heck, even the B-plussers!) are protected not only by SAG basics wherever they work, but also, of course, by all the extra flurries and garnishes worked out by agents and managers alike.
So it was that a recent item from Malta — yes, the very place from where that fabled noirish bird comes from– caught our eye. The piece, found on the “Malta Today” website, declared that “overworked and underpaid” film and stage workers were making moves to set up their own union.
The article quotes Maltese director Martin Bonnici, who declares that “everyone is paid poorly,” adding that “the standard pay for actors in a leading role in TV is €40 per episode.”
As of this writing, that’s about $45 bucks. “Bonnici says his industry is full of underpaid actors and crew members who also face delayed payments,” the article continues. “One film shot last March still owes money to its cast and crew, while another was called off after a month of preparations, and still owes money to its crew members,” he says.
While many of these were independent, or non-U.S.-based productions, one headline-making shoot was Russell Crowe’s return to the island — for the first time since Gladiator — for the film The Prizefighter. There’s an Instagram account called Maltacrewstories, and a couple of months back, someone posted that “this production is to be avoided. It owes crew money and is very badly run. Spread the word. Don’t do it if you are offered it and if you hear of anyone else considering it, discourage them.” The article notes, however, that “the local service provider disputed the claims with MaltaToday. “All commitments have been honored, from [the] crew to extras and other services.”
And while the position of “service provider,” especially absent any locals or unions, would be worth investigating, even Bonnici, who is organizing a founding committee for the unionization effort with reps from broadcasting, stage, and film production, acknowledges that “the servicing sector that engages in the filming of foreign films in Malta is very organized and most people are paid fair wages — although hours can sometimes be too long,”
And thus we are again reminded that a “good deal” for unionized workers in the heart of a particular industry will not necessarily mean a “rising tide” for workers elsewhere: If shorter turnaround times, for example, are won by one union, in one place, does that mean that producers everywhere will accede to them? Consider the difference (still!) for unionized crews in Europe when their shooting hours are contrasted with their American colleagues.
Further complicating the nascent organizing move in Malta, “the committee will not be pushing for production companies to hire unionized cast and crew when operating [here].” And according to Bonnici, “producing any film, TV or theatre project is already a complicated affair and our aim is not to make it harder for producers to do their work, or for cast and crew to find work.”
Which may or may not bring Maltese workers back to square one.
For similar reasons, headlines were made recently when workers in a GM plant in Mexico voted to unionize, too. Or more specifically, to switch unions. An upstart guild “supported by international activists on Thursday won an election to represent General Motors workers in central Mexico, opening the door to the prospect of bigger pay rises, inspired by U.S.-backed labor reform.” In this case, then, there may actually be some “spillover” effect from better conditions for U.S.-based workers, though some of this may stem from a long history of organizing for automotive workers on this side of the border. In industries with scant union representation — like the aforementioned laptop/phone-making, or, say, wrangling visual effects in post-production — the same “cultural structures” aren’t immediately available.
Autoworkers in the Mexican plant are now repped by SINTTIA — not an affiliate of the UAW, however — which “won 78% of the votes… at GM’s plant in the city of Silao, beating three rivals, including Mexico’s biggest labor organization, which had held the plant contract for 25 years.”
Among other things, SINTTIA said it “would like to see raises above inflation, which ended 2021 above 7%.” (The use of an inflationary spiral caused by a pandemic and supply-chain mishaps, as a wedge to claim worker wages are simply rising too fast — pay no attention to those corporate profits! — is something we hope to pick up again in future columns.)
The worker before SINTTIA, by the way, was the “Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), which had held the contract since the plant opened in 1995 [but was] aligned with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).”
Liz Shuler, president of IATSE’s parent AFL-CIO, hailed the outcome, saying “this vote represents a rejection of the past,”
Autoworker Jesus Barroso put it another way: “We’re fed up. Being fed up is what’s making us take this decision.”
The crew folk of Malta are apparently fed-up as well, as were IATSE members here, with their recent overwhelming strike authorization vote. Whether lasting change comes to the small island that spawned the literary Falcon, or even to America and Canada (the pairing which provides the “International” in IATSE’s name), depends on the how actual experience of actual working conditions unfolds in the months and years ahead.
Or perhaps “being fed up” will lead to further changes on soundstages, backlots, and in workplaces everywhere. Though as ever, it may come down to whether workers, as Dashiell Hammett wrote in the original Maltese Falcon, “mind a reasonable amount of trouble” getting there.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”