- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
For every television show and movie, there is a small army of off-screen workers keeping the production afloat. They are known as “below the line” crew members, people whose names will never grace a poster advertising the latest entertainment. These workers include cinematographers, grips, hairstylists, costumers, makeup artists, craft services, and editors, and many of them are in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a 150,000-member-strong union.
Now IATSE is gearing up for a possible strike. The union has been negotiating for months with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents such companies as Amazon, Disney, and Netflix. At stake are the terms of the Producer-IATSE Basic Agreement — a three-year contract that covers IATSE’s thirteen Hollywood locals, some sixty thousand people — as well as the Theatrical and Television Motion Picture Area Standards Agreement.
With the AMPTP’s failure to respond to IATSE’s latest proposal, offered on September 21, the union announced that the Hollywood locals would take a strike authorization vote. The results are in: 90 percent of eligible members voted, and 98 percent of those votes are in favor of authorizing a strike. In doing so, they have given IATSE president Matthew Loeb the authority to call a strike should progress at the bargaining table prove impossible.
While individual IATSE locals have struck before, this is the first time the Hollywood locals have proceeded this far toward a strike together. Given that three of the Hollywood locals — 600, 700, and 800 — are national, it means that a strike could shut down production coast-to-coast.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Spring Super, a makeup artist and member of IATSE Local 798, a New York-based local, about why IATSE members are willing to strike to secure a better contract. As with so many other crew members (see their testimonies at @IA_stories on Instagram, an account that offers an ongoing stream of stories from within the industry), Super emphasizes that long days and disrespect on set are pushing workers to the brink.
What has led to this moment, in which so many film industry workers are speaking up about poor working conditions and willing to fight for a better contract?
These poor conditions have been on my mind for a long time, but this movement really happened when so many of us weren’t working for a long period of time during the pandemic. We started to look at our health problems and all the rest in our lives that had been either neglected or ruined. There’s a sector of us who didn’t want to go back at all, and used the pandemic to shift careers. Then there were those of us that were advocating throughout the pandemic that if we did come back, especially because of COVID, there needed to be some changes.
There were promises made by the bosses during that period of the shutdown to entice us to come back to work and put our lives at risk with the potential of catching COVID. I work a lot in background, which means I do makeup for actors who are not the principal actors in the show. Sometimes background groups can be hundreds of people. So for us to be face-to-face with people, with no mask on, doing makeup with the potential of catching COVID, was scary. It required negotiations and meetings and promises about the conditions we would be working in. Every production has its own protocols, and I made a joke that ended up becoming true, which was “Watch them hire PAs [production assistants] to do all the COVID protocols and give them half a day of training.” That’s what they did. Their real goal is avoiding lawsuits and liability.
In addition to the concerns around COVID, people in the industry describe the work as stressful, in part because the hours are so long. What are your days like?
First, the days are very long. My husband and I have been together for more than a decade and he still asks me if I know what time I’m coming home. We laugh about that because we never know how long our days will take. Our days are on average twelve hours; that’s what people hope for, which is sad, but it’s because we can go to fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, or even twenty hours. It’s mind-boggling.
We also start super early in the morning on Monday. I’ve been called in at 2 AM before, and then you work twelve hours. Some people in the crew, including makeup, are “pre-called,” meaning that if the crew call time is 7 AM, we’re called in at 5 AM. It’s us and costumes and hair and people like the van drivers who bring in the actors. Some of the rest of the crew doesn’t even know that we work longer and that we wrap after them as well.
The other problem is turnaround time, which is how much time passes between your wrap time and your call time the next morning. Some contracts have as little as a nine-hour turnaround. Most of the contracts I’ve worked under are ten hours, which means that you have ten hours to get home, sleep, see family, and do everything else before you’re back the next morning. Each day, your call time gets later because of how late you’ve wrapped and because of that turnaround time. By Friday, you come in late in the day and wrap into Saturday, maybe around sunrise, a practice people call “Fraturdays.” Your weekend has been encroached upon without sixth-day pay, and you have that early Monday morning call time approaching. That’s not sustainable.
What are the key issues when it comes to the contract?
Reasonable rest periods are key. As it stands, people are dying. It’s a life-threatening situation. They don’t cancel shooting when there are dangerous conditions, and they keep us there through those conditions. Not that long ago, I was on a set on our last day of shooting and a hurricane hit. We were in Brooklyn, by the water, and had been getting warnings all day that the hurricane was going to be dangerous. By the evening, water was flooding into the streets and our bathroom camper was too underwater to access, so we were without a bathroom. We’re getting alerts on our phones that the roads are dangerous and it’s an emergency situation, and no one’s supposed to be on the roads unless they are fleeing. And nobody does anything, nobody stops and says, “This is dangerous, we need to go.”
My boss had the conviction to reach out to our steward and to some of the department heads and say, “This is too dangerous and we need to walk off set.” She’s organizing this over text message while in her car during a hurricane. They’re still shooting and they don’t want us inside, so we’re outside under tents that are obviously not sufficient because it’s a hurricane — and forget COVID protocols, we’re huddled together, with hair, makeup, and wardrobe sharing a tent. Why are we still shooting? As they’re organizing this walkout, someone from production finally says we’re wrapping. It’s like, Oh, sure, now that you’ve got people walking off, you’re deciding to shut it down. The lack of humanity is so visible.
You can take how the PAs are treated as evidence: they’re not even allowed to sit down. There are people that take that experience coming up in the industry and turn around and don’t do it to other people, because they know it was wrong when it happened to them. But sadly, more often than not, there are people who do that to the next person once they make it. They wear that sacrifice, which is actually exploitation, as a badge of honor.
I tell the story of that hurricane, but there are even worse stories about treatment on set. A man had a seizure and almost died in my arms on set for a show. It happened as a very famous actor was in the middle of his monologue, and as soon as the man was gotten out of the way, they went back to shooting.
People have been seriously injured, had heart attacks, and died. People are forced to work in extreme elements of cold and heat, and many of those people are not paid enough money to afford the winter gear they need to be out there. One show I was on had people in 1940s garb, with gloves, jackets, hats, vests, and a blazer, while they were in 100-degree heat. People were passing out like flies. They wouldn’t give them a break; there was so little access to water or bathrooms. They had to walk so far to get water that I saw one woman finally take one sip of her water and she said, “Okay, we need to go back to shooting.” I said to her, “Why don’t we all just go home? Why are we all taking this?” I can understand it in a workplace that doesn’t have a union, where workers are individually fighting these things, but we have one. How did we get to a point where this is considered acceptable?
As IATSE moves toward a strike, a lot of people are no longer willing to accept those conditions. It feels like a different moment.
It definitely feels like a new moment. The conversations on set and over social media are so different. That Instagram account @IA_stories has been huge because it helped tie us together. In our departments we’re in different roles, with different rates of pay and different contracts, so there are all kinds of divisions among us in a way that keeps us blind to the other departments’ exploitation. Sometimes our departments are pitted against each other: hair and makeup tend to be the ones thrown under the bus when things are running late. But over the past few months, a lot of people think production companies are anticipating a strike, because they’re amping up the hours and the pressure to shoot more in a day. It’s worse than before, which was already unbearable. I’m talking about seventeen-hour days, every day. They’re pushing people to strike because we have no other choice.
The toll it takes on your body and your life is unsustainable. I know people who have had miscarriages, who have missed important moments in their children’s lives, who have parents who need care but can’t give it to them because they’re always on set. Those of us who work in this industry are expected to give up all of that.
It’s worth talking about the double burden on women, too. The hours make it difficult to be a parent, and the workplace isn’t accommodating on basic issues like menstruating or being in the middle of the woods in the snow with no bathroom. For those of us who have had babies and are pumping, the places we’re told to pump are deplorable. They’re supposed to give us a dedicated room to pump, with a refrigerator, but that does not exist much of the time. They’ll try to send you to a bathroom, or they’ll walk around looking for a place. I’ve seen them put up cardboard and ask women to just go behind it to pump. It’s an industry of haves and have nots, and that’s another of the ways in which it plays out.
The fact that people are fed up is wonderful, because a lot of us have felt this way for a long time. We’ve been pushed to the breaking point. This negotiation has given us a place to express that. There is also the fact that the AMPTP has been so vile in this process. My understanding is that they’re giving on many of the things that we’ve brought to the table, but not reasonable hours. But that’s the main thing! People are dying because we’re crashing our cars on the way home. And, as if that’s not enough, it’s important to remember that the producers can afford it. There is so much demand for content. They have the money and they are choosing not to spend it on safe working conditions.
You’re on the East Coast, so while you aren’t in one of the Hollywood locals, the strike would affect your work because a few of the locals moving toward a strike are national, meaning that some of your coworkers on set would be on strike. Can you explain what that will look like?
The productions that I’m currently working on will be affected in the sense that our cinematographers, for instance, would be on strike, which would, incidentally, shut our production down. That would affect so many of the shows we work on in New York: ABC, NBC, Disney. The AMPTP has over three hundred production companies; it’s all the major ones. We also, as individuals, are not required to cross the picket line of our fellow union members, even though we’re under different contracts. If a strike happens on a show I’m working on, I would report to work, see that there is a picket line, and decide to not cross that picket line, therefore abstaining from working. So it will affect a lot of shows out here.