Interview: Why I’m Voting No on the IATSE Hollywood Basic Tentative Agreement
Sixty thousand film and television crew members are finally set to vote on tentative agreements announced in mid-October. Emboldened by the high turnout for their strike authorization vote, many members are continuing to speak out about the long hours and dangerous conditions they endure to produce profits for Netflix, Amazon, and Disney. Labor Notes spoke with IATSE Local 80 member Brandy Tannahill, who is organizing an Inter-Local IATSE Town Hall for members tomorrow, November 10, to discuss the tentative agreement and next steps if the agreement is not ratified. Sign up here to attend: bit.ly/2YvNSPG
Labor Notes: Tell me about your job and your local.
Brandy Tannahill: I am a grip. I work in film and TV, occasionally commercials. My job is to provide lighting and camera support that involves, for the most part, rigging and lighting diffusion and shaping to achieve a desired look. For example, I might put a camera rigged to the hood of a car, or put a car on a process trailer and rig lights to that.
IATSE Local 80 is within the Hollywood Thirteen locals that are covered by the Basic Agreement, which is under negotiation at this time [the Area Standards Agreement is also being voted on; the locals took their strike authorization vote together –Eds]. We represent grips, medics, craft services, marine, and some warehouse workers.
What were you hearing from Local 80 leading up to the negotiations this year?
It was kind of like a footnote in general membership meetings: “Oh, negotiations are coming up soon, so we’ll be reaching out to national IATSE to figure out where we’re at with that.” It wasn’t a major topic of discussion, and there wasn’t any email I can recall [where it was the focus].
The public started watching the IATSE negotiations at some point this fall. When did you start to get a sense that both members and the public were paying close attention?
Probably the first contract extension was when it really became a topic of conversation on set. Like, “They didn’t come to an agreement already? What the hell?” and then each subsequent extension was, “How long are they going to do this?”
We did get negotiations updates in our general membership meetings, for example, that would say, “The producers weren’t really budging and that there are some points of contention, and the points we’re struggling on are this, this, and this.”
When did that start to escalate to talk of a strike vote?
No one had really considered the concept of a strike, because it’s not within institutional memory really. So when they had the authorization vote, that was a real “come to Jesus” moment for the membership. I think that woke up the older membership who have been through many negotiation cycles: this time is different.
And then once the authorization was a topic of conversation, the leadership put out a lot of messages to the membership that said, “It doesn’t matter whether or not you want a strike. Voting yes on an authorization vote is a negotiation tool that we all need to have solidarity and do if we want to achieve something that is going to be beneficial in this contract.”
Business agents started doing set visits, essentially campaigning for the vote. We had really high turnout for that and it really fired people up. The talk on set was, “Here we go. Buckle up.” We had assigned strike captains already, and had packed up our tools Friday night in preparation to be out Monday.
[IATSE President] Matt Loeb set the strike date for a Sunday at midnight. The Saturday afternoon before that, the strike was called off because they had a tentative agreement.
My frustration was that we didn’t keep the strike date. I think we called off the strike too early given that we had such strong tools in our toolbox.
But it was uncertain ground for IATSE, since strikes aren’t in our recent institutional memory and the concept and ramifications seemed so scary to rank and file and leadership. Or that was their perception of how we felt. I think their motivation in calling off the strike was to say, “We saved you from a strike. We’re not going to impact your livelihood.”
It was an excellent confluence of events from our perspective: not only were we not producing content for several months because of Covid, but people were consuming content at home at a voracious rate, and those companies were able to increase their subscriber base by a lot and make record profits through Covid.
I would have really rather struck, to leverage what we have going on right now, with the streaming services having a deficit of content as a result of Covid shutdowns.
Producers on various jobs I was on intimated that Covid costs were astronomical and they needed to pass that on. [But] a lot of the increased costs for producing content during Covid were negligible or were tax write-offs or were subsidized. So when producers say they are still recovering from Covid and they need a break, that is kind of a false claim.
What are some of those increased costs for filming during Covid?
Testing. If you are dealing with mask-less talent, you are generally testing three times a week. If you worked at different jobs on different days, the scheduling can get tricky. And they pay Covid stipends: $250 is what I get paid from my production to get a PCR test on my day off. Plus [there are] Covid compliance officers, monitors, dividers. If people are getting spaced out, you then need more lunch tables, more vans for transport, more drivers.
How did you find out about the tentative agreement (TA) once it was reached?
I found out through an article published by Variety. I found more details in that article than what was sent out initially by my local. I had just worked a “Fraturday” [a long Friday shoot that goes into Saturday, a grueling practice that members hoped to curtail in the new contract –Eds] and I woke up to this news and they only had bullet points that they sent out to us.
What were you hearing from the leadership about the ratification?
We had a town hall the next weekend; that was the first time we learned anything beyond the bullet points. Sometime between that meeting and the next weekend, IATSE sent out an email blast with the fact sheets.
There was some kind of blowback from the membership about not getting more details, so there were town halls after that throughout IATSE. We learned in general what was agreed upon, but not as detailed as the Memorandum of Agreement, which we only got a couple of days ago. The MOA made clear that there were lots of carve-outs and loopholes that were not apparent in the bullet points earlier.
Did the information and perspective from your local and the international union match up with your experience of the contract?
The messaging that was going out to the press, and internally in communications to us was: “This is a historic landmark achievement, break out the cigars, Hollywood ending.” When I looked at what was in the bullet points, I thought, “How is this a landmark? Three percent annual raises for three years—I wouldn’t even call that remarkable.”
Business agents were saying they wanted to get rid of the “new media” term and contracts [referring to streaming], which were instead rebranded as “Streaming Video on Demand,” which is like putting lipstick on a pig. Separate, and often worse, streaming contracts remain, which is a real frustration and disappointment.
And then not even going into negotiations asking for 12 hours on and 12 off. We have all these stickers that say “We Stand for Reasonable Rest.” We thought we were going in asking for 12 on 12 off, but we didn’t ask for it and we certainly didn’t get it. We got a weekend turnaround time frame that can easily be exploited based on how it’s written.
The mechanism for enforcement is a straight time penalty, which is negligible for a producer, so there’s no incentive to not violate it. And there are carve-outs for shooting past a certain time on exteriors, but often the whole reason you are doing an overnight is because you are trying to shoot an exterior when it’s dark and you’re not on a stage. So if the exemption to a weekend turnaround cap is shooting exteriors, you are missing the whole point.
And if they want to avoid the penalties, they will just start staggering your start times, which means you still don’t get to see your family. And if they don’t give you a weekend, but keep a 10-hour turnaround, that is still in compliance. Or they build the penalties into their budget and nothing changes.
When did you get the sense other members were not happy with the TA?
It would get brought up on set. People would say, “Did you see this? And this?” The on-set chatter was pretty universal, even if people hadn’t been tuned in. Word of mouth and social media let us know how upset people were.
Did you get a sense that the locals were hearing this feedback?
I don’t think they provided us with the opportunities to voice that publicly, only through direct emails and calls to them. The formats for the town halls were webinar-type formats. Usually we ran out of time [for many questions] or chat was disabled. The first town hall that really allowed expression from rank and file to leadership occurred a couple weeks after the TA came out.
In response, my co-worker Cory Boldroff and I decided to put together an inter-local town hall, for members only, and we verified membership cards!
We wanted a place where people in different locals could explain their concerns to each other, so we can attempt to get to the bottom of what the contract really says and what the loopholes and carve-outs could be, so people can make an informed and confident vote.
I learned at that meeting that on-call employees are being exploited worse than I knew. I had to hear from Local 871 members to know that.
A significant gain in this contract is that our lowest-paid members were getting a $10-an-hour raise to go from $16 an hour to something like $26. In talking to Local 871 members, it seems the general feeling is that they don’t want less than $30. I’m sure there were people who were thinking, “Well, the contract isn’t that great for me, but if I get someone a living wage, then we should lift up our brothers and sisters. Well, if our brothers and sisters don’t feel that’s what they need, then don’t vote yes on their behalf! So I think it’s helpful and constructive for us to talk to each other more.”
What was on your meeting agenda?
We had a few things we came up with, and a few we crowdsourced. One thing was that we had called someone at the National Labor Relations Board with questions like, “If we don’t ratify the contract, what happens next? Also, what is regressive bargaining? What is pattern bargaining?” Lots of procedural questions, so we took those answers to the meetings, because we knew people would want to hear from an unbiased source.
Our agenda then included breakout rooms with the 13 locals and one for the Area Standards Agreement. Then one speaker per group shared their perspectives on their chief concerns of what affects them in the contract. We discussed contract loopholes that may be exploited not specific to any one local, which it might be difficult to make sure are properly enforced, like the penalties for weekend turnout violations.
Why did you think you needed an unbiased source?
It seemed as though there was confusion or lack of information from leadership as to the potential that the contract could be voted down. Some business agents said we would immediately go on strike. Others said we would wait for Loeb to call the strike.
So what’s the truth? Well, the NLRB said that since we provided the authorization vote, Matt Loeb is empowered to call the strike, and he still has that power. So if the TA is voted down he would have the discretion to call a strike.
How did different locals respond to the contract? Did anything surprise you?
It was fascinating that people brought up mostly things that applied to lots of locals. It was pretty unified.
We realized we needed another meeting, so the next one is Wednesday, November 10, at 6 p.m. Pacific time. Any member of IATSE can come if I can verify their membership. I can also send a recording of the last meeting. [Sign up here: bit.ly/2YvNSPG.] We’ll record this meeting as well.
Especially in this information age, there’s some good information out there on social media. We’ve probably had 570 participants and people asking for the recording. People have access to articles about John Deere voting down their contract or the strike for health care workers. It allows us to make comparisons with other industries and get perspective and learn from each other.
[At the meeting] we’ll take the things we wrote down in the last meeting and workshop them into a cohesive set of demands in case the TA is voted down. I believe it will be voted down. I hope it will be voted down, but we don’t know.
This will allow people to vote from an informed place. The contract might end up getting ratified. If it doesn’t, this will hopefully empower our leadership to have something to take back to the negotiating table.
Ratification is November 12-15. The membership votes through electronic ballot.
If you come to this meeting and leave feeling good about voting yes, that’s perfectly fine, as long as you are informed. Not being informed is not in the best interest of solidarity or supporting each other.