Below the Line talks with Thomas C. Short, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), about the details of the recent successful conclusion of early negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) for a new three-year Hollywood Basic Agreement. Short also discusses the health of the entertainment economy, and other IA organizing efforts, with writers and computer game company employees topping the list.Below the Line: You recently concluded another whirlwind two-week negotiation with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a new three-year basic agreement that runs through the middle of 2009. Why did you settle so fast?Tom Short: We don’t believe in taking it to the wire. In my heart of hearts—and this is the fourth “basic” contract that I’ve done—I believe there’s a little bit more to be gotten at the table if you settle before a looming deadline. That’s the quid pro quo.Going to the wire is counterproductive. The studios start to get skittish. They have billions tied up in various stages of production, so they rev up their feature films, and start shooting double episodes for television. Even if there’s eventually a settlement, we wind up with a de facto strike. The start-stop consequences mean our people can be unemployed for anywhere from six to nine months. That’s what occurred in 2001 when the Writer’s Guild decided to engage in brinksmanship.Reaching an agreement earlier creates stability for our members—they work continuously. They’re not without health benefits for six to nine months and there’s no disruption to their pension and annuity contributions. That’s the benefit to us, and I think it’s a benefit to the industry to reach an accommodation on labor costs and keep production going. BTL: What will your members consider the high points in the latest agreement? Short: The first year we’re taking 25 cents an hour from our wages and that goes into our health plan; another 25 cents will go into the defined benefit pension fund. And there’s a 75-cents-an-hour wage increase. That’s a total of $1.25. On a ballpark mean average wage of $30 an hour, that’s an increase of approximately 4.1 percent in the first year. That’s not bad, considering the labor agreements being reached today. In the second year there’s a 3-percent wage increase, with another half of one percent going into the individual account annuity plan. That takes it to a 5.5-percent of scale wages for all hours worked. The third year has a 3.3-percent wage increase, with another half percentage point going into the individual annuity fund. That lifts the contribution to 6 percent of scale wages for hours worked, and is a further supplement to the defined benefit pension plan. In addition we received another 10-percent increase for future retirees in the defined benefit pension fund. BTL: Is there an overall number you can put on the entire three-year package? Short: All the wage increases are compounded. So the total package approaches 12 percent over three years. In addition, we were able to maintain the 13th and 14th check for our current retirees. That’s an increase per year of 16.8 percent each year. On top of that, we negotiated an additional 10-percent increase for future retirees. The total once compounded represents an increase in the pension fund over the four contracts I’ve done as president, by 78 percent. BTL: What was the key to getting it done? What made it possible? Short: What was the magic? The high confidence level of the overwhelming majority of 18 local unions and their leaders provided a tremendous amount of support and helped to achieve the results. And frankly, I’m not one to engage in hocus pocus dominocus with the producers either. These are extraordinarily mature contracts that have been around for decades. And neither side is going to go in hoping to hit grand slams. It just isn’t going to happen. My thrust was to protect the best health plan in Hollywood and keep it that way for both our actives and retirees—and to once again increase our pension for future retirees while protecting the current retirees We have the Rolls Royce of health plans in Hollywood. Every other union and guild co-pays for their premiums—we don’t. Our prescription costs are the lowest for anybody in town.BTL: What did you work out with regard to any staffing issues?Short: We received recognition for foley artists who will be part of Local 700, the Editor’s Guild. We also got recognition for the marine department, which is part of Local 80. Those who work at the base camp have been recognized as part of Local 728. And the balloon lighting technicians have been recognized as well, with IATSE having an exclusive jurisdiction. BTL: What about the demands from the producers? What was their objective? Short: They wanted the sun, moon and the stars.BTL: What did they get? Short: They got a guaranteed work force for the next three years. And that includes some of the finest technicians and artists to be found anywhere in the world that work on a per diem basis. Our workers don’t have the benefit of permanent payroll status. When a project is finished, the studios can put them on a shelf with absolutely no financial obligation whatsoever. So that’s all they got, and that’s all they deserved to get, frankly.BTL: Were there any agreements to reduce staffing in some positions?Short: There was some language in terms of camera operators.BTL: That’s it?Short: There were many other issues that were addressed but these will come out in the final summary, which I haven’t gotten. But those are the highlights.BTL: Is there anything members will gripe about in this agreement?Short: Those that are unemployed and are chronically unemployed will find something wrong with it. We do have a provision in the contract that calls for better conditions. That means people can negotiate for better wages and conditions on their own. These are just the minimums, not the maximums. We have many people that work far over scale and they always have that ability. Trust me, this is a good contract.BTL: On the surface it looks like a big win for IATSE.Short: This I believe is a better contract than the one I did three years ago. And that was ratified by 80 percent of the bargaining unit.BTL: How did you achieve this? There’s been some poor-mouthing by the studios.Short: We should all be as poor as they are. But to bring about stability there’s a price to pay for that. And I think the studios demonstrated that they’re prepared to do that if people come in early. That’s not the case with the actors and the writers, who tended to push things to the limit when they negotiated. BTL: A new more aggressive leadership was recently elected by both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writer’s Guild, and they have started to talk tough about doing better in their next round of negotiations, though their current contracts don’t expire until 2007. What’s your take?Short: Other than a lot of rattling of sabers, I don’t know what’s really going on.BTL: Do you think the studios are already starting to anticipate a possible strike threat by, say, stockpiling scripts?Short: I don’t see that happening for a year-and-a-quarter or a year-and-a half. And if that happens, what will really change for the writers? Everybody in the industry knows what goes on. If they’re not writing at their desks in the offices, they’ll be writing from their homes, be it in the mountains or in the deserts, and then secretly passing scripts at the local Gelson’s grocery store.BTL: You’re saying that hard-nosed negotiations trigger anticipatory actions on the part of the studios, even if there is no strike, create major disruptions?Short: They do for people who work regularly in the business, not just sel
l a script every few years. I represent people who actually work in the business full time. It’s not a hobby or a passing fancy for our people. We actually work under contracts. I can’t say the same for some other groups out there. BTL: You’ve recently talked about organizing writers. Short: I can’t talk much about that; but, yes, we’re continuing to do so.BTL: What categories of writers are you trying to organize?Short: Any category I can..BTL: Writers already have their own guild, the WGA. Why would you organize writers?Short: It didn’t seem to bother the WGA to come out and try to organize hyphenate editors and writers on reality television shows—though they’ve been totally unsuccessful. They don’t have any agreements, none. The IA already represents most of the animation writers in Hollywood. They don’t. I do. And I’m pursuing other avenues in terms of writing and I’m going to keep doing so. It seems to me a lot of the writers out there are more interested in our benefit funds than those at their own guild. Where those opportunities exist, I’m going to exploit them as much as I can.BTL: What other organizing efforts are you pursuing?Short: We’re working on everything in the entertainment industry. BTL: You’ve talked about those in computer games specifically. Short: That is an industry obviously in transition. It’s a tough nut to crack. But we don’t stop organizing, be it in the motion picture and television industry, CGI, the gaming industry, the arts and trade shows. BTL: How would you describe the current economic state of the entertainment industry?Short: It’s very healthy, everywhere I turn. Employment in the motion picture industry is tremendous, in the legitimate theater and the arts it’s tremendous, in the trade show category, it’s tremendous. We’re in the right industry.BTL: But there seems to be all this hand-wringing, with studios worried that DVD sales have peaked. And this year the box office was falling for theatrical features. Short: The solution is to make better movies.BTL: There was no claim by the AMPTP of feeling financial stress during the talks?Short: Not at all.BTL: What were the sticking points? There must have been some.Short: Money is always a sticking point. But we were able to get a total package far better than what is the norm in this country today. And we bolstered a health plan that is only one of 23 in this country that doesn’t have a co-pay provision. There isn’t an industrial union in America that has a better health plan than this one. And our pension fund will have increased by what over 13 years will be 78 percent, which is unheard of today. And the annuity fund, which was at zero percent when I became president in 1993; now goes to 6 percent.BTL: What was the overall negotiating atmosphere? Short: I’d say very professional.BTL: A question on the mechanics. How does this all happen? How do you conclude a negotiation of a new three-year basic agreement involving all the big money issues and lots of smaller ones in such a short time frame? Short: We go morning, noon and night. It’s pretty compressed and gets stressful. There are about 100 people involved and we have separate caucuses that deliberate on some specifics. But at the end of the day, the issues get settled at the big table with the senior people from the big companies and myself and my senior people. And by getting it done well before contract expiration, which isn’t until mid-year 2006, we’ve managed to achieve something that’s not only good for our people, it’s good for the entire industry. I know from the three past negotiations that I’ve done, there is a huge benefit from finishing so early. It not only stabilizes the industry, it produces some welcome additional economic benefits.
Written by Jack Egan