Opinion

The Film Industry Wants to Keep the Status Quo? Then Shut It Down.

In 2015, Cutter Ray Palacios, an actor from Texas, moved to Los Angeles. While auditioning for roles, he found himself working primarily as a production assistant (P.A.),a job that can entail transporting actors to and from set, moving equipment, sorting mail, and running errands for producers or other members of the crew.

Most P.A.s are not unionized. They are some of the most poorly paid people in the television and film industry: Mr. Palacios was making minimum wage, and for a while he was homeless and living in his car.

“You aren’t allowed to sit down as a P.A.,” he told me. Mr. Palacios considers himself lucky because his show treated him “like family.” But he also says that he used to “call 10-1” — the code to use the bathroom — so he “could sit on the toilet for a few minutes.”

After about a year, Mr. Palacios was approached by another crew member about joining the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (I.A.T.S.E.). The union represents “below the line” crew members — the cinematographers, grips, hair stylists, costumers and editors whose work is critical to production even if they don’t get top billing on movie posters. “The guy who approached me said, ‘You have a really strong work ethic. How would you feel about making more money with benefits?’” Mr. Palacios told me.

Mr. Palacios joined I.A.T.S.E. Local 80. He began working in craft services, assisting skilled technicians on set. The higher wages and benefits were an improvement over his time as a P.A., but there was a downside: He went from being someone with a social life to only being friends with people at work. “Once you’re on to the next show, they aren’t your friends anymore, because you’re on to the next job,” he said.

On set, if production falls behind, workdays are extended. By Friday, shifts can bleed into Saturday, leading to “Fraturdays,” as they’re known in the industry. And producers can call workers back in as early as 2 a.m. on Mondays. Twelve and 14-hour days are customary, and 20-hour days are not unheard of; studios can choose to pay paltry “meal penalties” to workers rather than allow them a break for lunch. Many workers fear falling asleep at the wheel on their way home. Such all-consuming labor conditions are now being negotiatedas Mr. Palacios’s trade union prepares for a possible strike.

On Oct. 4, I.A.T.S.E.’s 36 locals, including some 60,000 people, returned a vote of 99 percent in favor of authorizing a strike should progress at the bargaining table prove impossible, with 90 percent of eligible members casting ballots. The move follows months of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over a new three-year contract, after the old one expired on Sept. 10.

Individual I.A.T.S.E. locals have gone on strike before, but, with so many locals participating, this would be the largest such action in the private sector since the 74,000-person strike at General Motors in 2007. It would shut down film and television production nationwide.

One factor that’s creating additional pressure for crew members is the streaming revolution. Amazon Prime, Netflix, Apple and Disney+ have come a long way since 2009 when the AMPTP, which represents them, first struck a deal with I.A.T.S.E.. Back then, “New Media” properties were still experiments with “uncertain” economics, necessitating “greater flexibility” in the terms and conditions of employment, as the agreement put it. Today, Netflix’s market valuation is $281 billion.

Streaming has pushed the industry toward a model of instant gratification for consumers, which is only possible with an always-available, nimble work force able to meet the demand. Producers grind workers down, while churning out ever more content to feed the streaming beast. But the workers cannot be easily replaced or automated. It is past time for them to enjoy standards that do not break them.Indeed, the 2009 agreement states that when production for streamers becomes “economically viable,” both parties would mutually recognize that fact in future agreements and raise working standards and benefits to be in line with those that govern traditional productions.

In the early months of the pandemic, when much of the entertainment world shut down, crew members experienced a life free from the industry’s grueling schedule, with many able to devote time to family, friends and leisure. Then, in June 2020, productions resumed with new on-set safety protocols.Days soon ran as long as they’d ever been as the industry tried to make up for lost time.

An Instagram account, ia_stories, illustrates the extent of the problem by sharing a steady stream of anonymous anecdotes. In one post, a second camera assistant asks her doctor for extra antibiotics to treat the urinary tract infections she suffers as a result of not having time to use the bathroom on set. Another shows a photo of a totaled car driven by a crew member who apparently succumbed to “drowsy driving.”

Recently, some producers have pushed crews even harder ahead of a potential strike. Frustrated workers expect even longer hours.

Objectionable scheduling practices may not appear to be the most pressing problems facing American labor — low pay and health insurance remain many people’s biggest concerns in a country that hasn’t raised its federal minimum wage since 2009 — but mandatory overtime and unpredictable schedules haveproven to be two of this year’s most volatile labor issues.

Recent strikes at both Frito-Lay and Nabisco plants turned on these issues. At Nabisco, work weeks that could extend to 80 hours contributed to a multistate strike. At the Kentucky-based Heaven Hill Distilleries, a large bourbon producer, workers have been on strike for a month, provoked by the company’s push for expanded weekend shifts. Just this week, workers at Kellogg cereal plants in four states walked off the job, their frustration fueled in part by the experience of some of them working 12-to-16 hour days, seven days a week.

Despite the evidence of overwork’s harmful impacts on health and work quality, some employers confronting a tighter-than-usual labor market are turning to mandatory overtime to circumvent the costs of finding new workers. Paying overtime is costly. But rather than investing in recruiting and training new workers and providing them with benefits, it’s often cheaper to work existing employees harder.

Whereas the European Union limits overtime, what few regulations that do exist in the United States pertain to workers like truckers and nurses. In America, a strong union contract can be workers’ best protection.

Announcing the results of the strike-authorization vote, the I.A.T.S.E. president, Matthew Loeb, said, “Our people have basic human needs like time for meal breaks, adequate sleep, and a weekend. For those at the bottom of the pay scale, they deserve nothing less than a living wage.”

The AMPTP has said that it “remains committed to reaching an agreement that will keep the industry working.” Negotiations resumed on Tuesday.

Should I.A.T.S.E. members secure reasonable rest periods — and higher wages for lower-paid workers so they no longer have to rely on overtime — it will be a significant blow to the status quo of overwork and unpredictable scheduling.

The eight-hour workday was among the first fights taken up by the American unionized labor movement. Today’s fight over hours may be the one on which workers rebuild the movement.

“As much as I love my job, I’m realizing that it’s not worth my life,” Mr. Palacios said. “It’s unhealthy when your whole life is tied to a waged job. You don’t realize how bad that is until it’s too late.”

Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and the host of Primer, a podcast about Amazon.

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