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Strike Alert: Strike Averted and Everybody’s Happy, Right?


Steamboat Bill
Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr (United Artists)

IATSE President Matthew Loeb called it “a Hollywood ending,” referring, of course, to the last minute tentative settlement between the union, and the AMPTP, to avoid the first-ever widespread crew shutdown of film and TV production.  

The phrase conjures up imagery going back to The Perils of Pauline, with the heroine snatched off the tracks moments before obliteration from an oncoming train.  But perhaps Buster Keaton, in Steamboat Bill, Jr. is more accurate, in the wake of reaction to the settlement, particularly the sequence where a house is being frayed apart in a storm. A wall  falls down on him, but he quite famously survives because he’s standing in the one open spot where the window frame is.

In other words, he wasn’t “saved” by deliberate action, but for the moment anyway, he’s not squished.

All of which is to say, we still need to see how this plays out. That “tentative,” in other words, may be the most currently reliable aspect of what we know. Within hours of settlement news breaking over the weekend, there seemed to be more member pushback on the known details than broad support.

“After all of the big talk of unsafe conditions,” tweeted one film editor, “stuff like a 10-hour turnaround is going to come off as a big flop,” with other IA members saying that given the typically long commutes in places like Southern California (and probably Atlanta), ten hours is scarcely enough time to get home, see family, eat, sleep, and get ready to come back. At least, in a rested state. “This tentative agreement is trash,” chimed in a union grip and self-described “union thug.” “12-on, 12-off at a bare minimum… Stop letting them kill us.”

Even director Adam McKay got into it, saying he’d “deleted my tweet congratulating IATSE on their new deal. I posted it an hour after the news broke and am now aware there were concessions that weren’t so great. Yet another example of the golden rule: ‘take a beat before reacting.’”

Michael Miller
IATSE VP Michael Miller (Photo: IATSE)

Despite all this, IATSE VP Michael Miller took to NPR to insist the agreement would be passed. He was asked by host Michel Martin whether ratification was a sure thing, given that “sort of the early reporting on this is that the feelings about it are mixed. Like, what sense are you getting?”

He replied that, “I think that the early reports are just that, and I suspect that it will be overwhelmingly ratified.” Which may not be the most resounding of assurances. 

He then went on to say that he was particularly proud of “the idea that we have funded our benefit plans in a meaningful and sustainable way and the idea that we’ve improved the working conditions by reestablishing a weekend and making sure that our members have an ample opportunity to rest between shifts.”

But of course the notion of “ample rest” has been one of the most criticized components of the proposed agreement.

Indeed, the  voices had become so hard to ignore over the weekend that even Variety, that showbiz paper of record with its roots in the same Vaudeville that spawned IATSE,  ran an article proclaiming “IATSE Deal Could Be Rejected by Members.”

It sampled much of the discontent, opening with the words of a local DP saying, “Basically nothing has changed. I have not heard a single person saying they will vote yes.”

Whether some of this is adrenaline that needs to be worked out, fueled by the anticipation of finally being able to deliver a once-in-a-working-lifetime blow to employers — entertainment companies, in this instance — by almost completely stopping release of their “product” until new conditions were met, all remains to be seen. 

The Variety article also pointed out that an actual ratifying vote is still likely weeks away, as the agreed upon points have to be wrangled into legalese and final form, before the question is put to union members.

Which means, then, that it would come right around hiatus time anyway. So if members do actually reject this deal, will there be picket lines at Yuletide? Or would they happen as 2022 rolls in, with its increasingly perfervid atmosphere heading into the midterm elections? 

That ties in to something else Miller said in his NPR interview, observing that the “national sense of labor power, I think, is a very unique moment in time. And I think we’re going to continue to see the pendulum swing in favor of workers. We’re going to be able to use that shift in momentum from the companies to the workers in order to continue to improve working conditions under our collective bargaining agreements.”

That would include of course the other AFL-CIO work stoppages we’ve written about, at companies like Kellogg’s (currently advertising for “replacement workers” to cross picket lines), John Deere (where farmers are starting to get a wee bit antsy about bringing in the harvest, if a strike goes on too long), health care facilities, and more. 

Hollywood workers, often with very specialized skill sets, are much harder to replace, particularly on short notice. That’s why they — much like professional athletes — have had the luxury of ongoing union representation, with its inferred strike potential, over many of the same decades when most American workers were at the complete mercy of their employers. 

So it’s reasonable to assume that Miller is right when he says the overwhelming support for a strike sends “a very, very clear message to the entire industry and, quite frankly, to the entire labor movement.”

The rest of that labor movement is no doubt pulling for Hollywood workers to “win,”  to show other sectors (and other bosses!) it can be done. And maybe, in some sense, below-the-line workers have prevailed. At least somewhat.  One IATSE member out of New York tweeted that it was “great progress. But only a 1st step.” The devil will remain in the details.

It’s also true, of course, that even “trends” on Twitter don’t constitute any kind of accurate polling. But then again, we’ve seen that neither does self-described “accurate polling.” So those next steps, after that first one, remain tantalizingly unknown. But it’s telling that so far,  there’s no widespread rallying sense that the workers here are considering it a great victory.

Perhaps, when the times themselves feel Pyrrhic, those are harder to come by. 

MLWIncrediHeadMark 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.”

Mark London Williams’ Strike Alert column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk 

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