Georgia’s Film and TV crew unions prepare to strike

Streaming media is booming, and production crews are working harder than ever. But they say the gains of the digital-entertainment age aren’t being fairly distributed.

On Saturday in Decatur, IATSE Local 479 president Ray Brown addressed a crowd rallying in support of the union’s strike authorization.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Behind every beautifully coiffed and perfectly lit actor gracing your television screen is a set crew of hundreds—sometimes thousands—who make each production a reality. Right now the union that represents more than 150,000 of those technicians, artisans, and craftspeople—the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE—is gearing up for a major vote to authorize a unionwide strike, after contract negotiations fell apart last week between IATSE and the producers union in Los Angeles.

On Saturday, 150-some members of Georgia’s local IATSE chapters gathered for a “block party” at NH Scott Park in Decatur to rally in support of the strike authorization. Many had left work at 7:00 that morning, following what’s known in the industry as “Fraturday”: a Friday shoot that bleeds into the wee hours of Saturday—increasingly a normal feature of the film and television production schedule. Long hours, paltry rest and lunch breaks, and unlivable wages for lowest-tier craftspeople are the top issues IATSE wants addressed in a new contract.

“This is not about a money grab,” Dave Chameides, a veteran cameraman and member of the cinematographers guild, IATSE Local 600, told the crowd. “This is about basic dignity, basic human rights.” In August, after the existing contract expired, IATSE representatives began negotiating a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents the major motion picture studios, including Disney, Paramount, and Warner Bros. (Netflix joined AMPTP in July, but some other major streaming and cable studios, like HBO, are not part of these negotiations.) The parties clashed over demands for better work conditions and pay increases, and last week, AMPTP announced it would not issue a counteroffer to IATSE’s most recent contract proposal. In response, IATSE leaders began discussing a strike option with union members.

Members will begin voting on the strike authorization via email on October 1. To pass, the authorization requires a yes vote from 75 percent of members in every local chapter. The authorization wouldn’t necessarily lead directly to a strike; it would first provide IATSE negotiators with a stronger bargaining chip to hammer out a new deal. If negotiations fail again, union leaders could then call for a strike.

AMPTP admits that “substantial improvements” are necessary, but maintains that its original contract offer would have achieved those aims—including higher rates for streaming productions, increased wages for certain workers, and “meaningful improvements” to rest periods. In a public statement, AMPTP criticized IATSE negotiators, saying they had “walked away from a generous comprehensive package.” In a separate statement on Thursday, AMPTP warned: “A strike will have a devastating impact on the industry and inevitably will result in thousands of IATSE members losing their income, failing to qualify for health insurance benefits, jeopardizing funding for the pension plan, and disrupting production.”

Though rally speakers acknowledged the challenges posed by a strike, they reminded the crowd that this was an act of collective solidarity, and that union members would look out for each other. “Call me—I’ll have you over for dinner; I’ll take your kid for school,” Chameides told rallygoers.

Brandon Polk and Kazz Walding, both electricians and members of IATSE Local 479

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

Kazz Walding and Brandon Polk, both electricians in Local 479, arrived at Saturday’s rally touting handmade signs and a life-size human skeleton. “If the camera local goes out on strike, we go with them,” Walding said, adding that she’s hopeful for better hours: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve almost fallen asleep on the side of the road. It’s got to stop.”

In March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic halted productions throughout the country, upending business as usual. The unexpected break provided a new perspective to many exhausted industry professionals. “Covid pushed the stop button,” said Cat Leatherwood, a cameraperson and Local 600 member. “People were at home with their families, finding new hobbies. I took up quilting! Covid gave us time to realize how we’ve been working needs to change.”

When filming picked back up, producers promised shorter workdays and Covid-safe conditions. But the pressure to make up for lost time resulted in many of those early commitments being tossed aside, Leatherwood said: “I’ve worked more days without a lunch break post-Covid than I ever did before.”

Georgia’s film industry has grown exponentially over the last ten years. Tax incentives passed in 2008 unleashed a flood of productions across the state, bringing in billions of dollars of revenue and droves of new residents, and securing Atlanta as the country’s third-largest production city. A union strike would grind the industry to a halt: IATSE represents such a wide swath of film and television technicians and craftspeople that filming would be virtually impossible without them.

The crewmembers union hasn’t gone on strike since before World War II, but comparisons are being drawn to the 2007-08 strike by the Writers Guild of American (WGA), which lasted 100 days and won screenwriters a larger share of digital media revenues. WGA unions on the West and East coasts have expressed support for IATSE’s strike authorization, as have the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the actors union SAG-AFTRA, and the Teamsters, whose unionized truck drivers often work on movie sets. Dozens of high-profile actors have also voiced support for IATSE, among them Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Ben Stiller, and Sarah Paulson.

Like the WGA before them, IATSE is demanding a reckoning over the runaway success of the film industry’s digital era—whose gains have not been fairly distributed, union supporters say. “We don’t work in salt mines—we work for conglomerates that make trillions of dollars!” Ray Brown, a veteran camera grip and president of the IATSE Local 479, bellowed into a microphone over cheers from the crowd. “Ten years ago, they promised us that they would share their success if we hung with them. Well, this has been wildly successful, and they’ve shared nothing!”

Local film and television professionals attend the IATSE block party in Decatur on Saturday.

Photograph by Rachel Garbus

“This” refers to the so-called “new media”: film and television created by streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+, which from their uncertain beginnings have come to dominate the entertainment industry. IATSE—pointing out that the new media is, in reality, not so new any longer—has called for recognition that streaming content is now the industry standard, saying workers deserve wages and benefits that reflect its success.

They also want to address the hazardous working conditions resulting from the relentless demand for new content. “To satisfy their millions of subscribers, they need to pump out product,” Brown said in an interview before he addressed the crowd. “So while we used to go to work and make a steak dinner, now we go in and we just churn out hamburger.” On social media, union members have posted photos of crewmembers napping under tables and on top of electric cables, and shared stories of unsafe working conditions, mental health breakdowns, and the emotional toll of working on abusive sets without reasonable breaks.

“We bring so much joy to the world with our craft,” Callie Moore told the crowd; a first assistant cameraperson and a member of IATSE Local 600, Moore was the lead organizer behind Saturday’s block party, which coincided with similar events in New York and Los Angeles. She exhorted her fellow union members to support the strike authorization. “When we move as one,” she called out, “we are unstoppable.”