Inside the Grassroots IATSE Campaign to Pay $70,000 in Back Dues for Strapped Members Ahead of Strike Authorization Vote

More than 98% of members voted to authorize a strike in union’s negotiations with film and TV producers

Hollywood sign IATSE

The overwhelming approval by IATSE members to authorize a strike came after months of grassroots organizing, creating a network of Hollywood workers so tightly knit that they raised $70,000 to help cover dues payments for members who had fallen behind due to the pandemic shutdown of production.

In the final days leading up to last weekend’s strike authorization vote, members learned they had to be caught up on all outstanding dues payments to participate. Olga Lexell, a writer assistant and script coordinator who is a member of IATSE Local 871, realized that this could shut out members who are behind on dues, especially for 871 members who are already the lowest paid workers in Hollywood.

“A friend reached out asking if there was anything we could do to help with this,” Lexell said, “and it just started with … doing what we can to get them money.”

Lexell turned to social media to ask IATSE members to reach out to her if they needed help with paying dues. Not only did she receive requests for help from multiple locals, but she found even more members and even friends from outside the industry wanting to help with contributions.

Using her contacts and hashtags like #IAStories that have been used for online organizing by IATSE members, Lexell created a spreadsheet to connect members in need with people, both within and outside IATSE, willing to pay their dues. In all, she estimates that 85 members received mutual aid on dues payments, with the total contributed reaching just over $70,000.

“I’m currently in Atlanta working on a show … so it was easy to spread the word with people I’ve met here, in my craft and other people willing to spread it on social media, especially the IAStories page which really reached people who are having a terrible time in the industry,” she said.

Approximately 60,000 IATSE members — 90% of the eligible membership — voted across 36 nationwide locals this past weekend, with an overwhelming 98% voting to authorize leadership to order a strike if negotiators fail to reach a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios. A new round of talks began between the two sides on Tuesday.

In total, over 150,000 film and TV crew workers are represented by IATSE in departments ranging from hair and makeup to cinematography and film editing. Those members are already gearing up for the possibility of a strike that would shut down much of film and TV production in the U.S., with the one major exception being shows for pay TV channels, which operate on a separate bargaining agreement.

IATSE locals have begun to organize support programs for union members who might be impacted by a strike, with additional support from members of the Writers Guild of America, many of whom got their start as writer assistants and either are or once were members of IATSE Local 871.

In addition, the Los Angeles Tenants Union sent out tweets in support of IATSE’s strike authorization and reached out to Lexell asking if they could help by educating members on eviction protections should a strike be called.

For now, there’s still a chance that a strike could be averted. IATSE is hoping that the authorization will give them enough leverage to win more favorable terms on compensation for streaming projects, higher wages across the board and firm rules on rest periods and the maximum amount of hours that a shoot day can last. If a strike is ordered, it would be the first major strike in Hollywood since the WGA’s three-month strike shut down production in 2007-08.

It would also be the first strike since the rise of social media as we know it. Twitter was in its nascent stages during the WGA walkout but social media has played a critical role in organizing IATSE members in recent weeks by bringing locals from starkly different jobs on film and TV sets together in a demand for an end to the status quo.

“During the pandemic, while we were all out of work we were just seeing all these headlines about how the streamers were making more money than ever thanks to shows that we helped make,” Lexell said.

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