Back From The Brink: How Crippling IATSE Strike Was Averted (For Now)

Television

It is ironic since Fraturdays were a focal point in IATSE’s contract demands that it took a Fraturday to thwart a potentially devastating Hollywood strike. The virtual negotiations between the union representing roughly 60,000 members covered by the locals, and AMPTP, the trade association representing the major Hollywood studios, had a marathon bargaining session last Friday that spilled well into the night.

It was not a true Fraturday — a work jargon referring to the fraught practice of Friday on-set production shifts stretching to early Saturday — but by the time talks wrapped late Friday night, the two sides had come to an agreement on the key points, including yearly scale wage increases of 3% in each year.

According to sources, Saturday morning was spent largely communicating with the individual locals on points specific to them. One of the biggest was raising minimum wage for Local 871 members (they include writers assistants and various coordinators), from $16 an hour to $23.50 next year, $24.50 in 2023, and $26 in 2024. Other sources argued that the tentative agreement was not reached until mid-day Saturday. In the end, a contract was approved by all 13 West Coast locals and announcement was made in early afternoon, more than a month after the previous IATSE deal had expired on September 10.

While a work stoppage was averted, “I think we were pretty close to a strike,” one participant said about the negotiations.

Contrary to popular belief, talks did not go down to the wire because the companies underestimated IATSE’s willingness to follow through on their threat to strike because the union had never done so in the past. Instead, it was the unusual course of negotiations that led to the drama, sources said.

“In every union negotiation, the other party does not ask on the first day what they ask on the final day,” one observer said. The two sides traditionally trade things until they reach compromise — it’s called bargaining for a reason.  But that was not the case this time, insiders say, with IATSE staying firm and not budging on their initial demands even an inch.

While the WGA did some of that during the most recent negotiation before it started bargaining, IATSE took the strategy to another level, surprising the studios by its unwillingness to give up any ground and bargain.

Observers believe the stance at least in part was due to the hardship brought upon by the pandemic of the past 18 months, with IATSE members among the hardest hit as many are hourly employees with little financial protections who struggled when production shut down for months. The pandemic also made many reexamine their work-life balance, making grueling long shifts with very little turnaround time no longer acceptable. That change in perspective helped turn sufficient rest time into a main cause members rallied around.

It wasn’t until a week or 10 days before the previous contract was to expire that the companies realized the unions were not going to change their positions and start making concessions.

“Then we had to look and ourselves and have an honest conversation,” one studio executive said. “Some of the practices have been pushed along for too long. Occasional 14-hour days had become too common 14-odd days.”

With small exceptions, the new basic agreement now guarantees 54 hours of rest for those working five consecutive days in a week, and 32 hours of rest when you work six days.

Quietly taking a lead role in bringing the two sides together in the final stretch were super lawyer Ken Ziffren, Disney General Entertainment Content chairman Peter Rice and the DGA’s former executive national director Jay Roth.

During the crucial final days of the negotiations the trio played mediators, spending time in a virtual room with one of the sides then with the other to help bridge the gaps and get over speed bumps in the talks.

While early euphoria among union members upon getting the news of a tentative deal on Saturday turned to skepticism — and even disappointment — in the hours and days to follow amid scarce details about the agreement beyond the main terms, sources on the companies’ side are optimistic the pact will be ratified by union members.

IATSE is amalgamation of various locals whose presidents all supported the deal. Locals that have addressed their members already have recommended ratification. But lingering questions remain over the gains — or lack there of — in the new contract as the complete agreement is yet to be released to members. It will come down to the vote to determine whether a strike threat has been eliminated. The steps in the ratification procedure were announced by IATSE on Thursday, with dates of the voting still TBD and  the process possibly stretching to mid-November.

If confirmed, the new contract will increase cost of production, impacting entertainment companies’ profit margins. Due to pattern bargaining, there will be a ripple effect, with the gains achieved by IATSE factoring into the main guilds’ upcoming negotiations. While that is considered inevitable as those who help make content seek a fair share of the revenue, the companies at least are hoping the upcoming negotiations will feature more bargaining and fewer lines in the sand that lead straight to the brink.

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