Javier Hernandez hasn’t had a job as a boom operator for the past seven months and it has taken a lot of number crunching to make his financial reserves last as long as they have as Hollywood’s strikes reached the four-month mark.
But as busy as he’s been taking care of his family, he felt it was important to show up at SAG-AFTRA’s National Day of Solidarity event outside the Disney lot last Tuesday. After a rally that included A-listers like Martin Sheen and Kerry Washington, Hernandez spoke to TheWrap while holding a picket sign bearing the logo of his union: IATSE Local 695.
“I’ve made it out to some of the bigger rallies and it’s really good to see the enthusiasm of all these people here,” Hernandez said. “It’s been hard not having a job since January, but I have to support these unions because the writers and actors have been getting a bad deal and I totally get why they’re going on strike.”
Hernandez was one of hundreds of IATSE members who attended the rally and the below-the-line union has had a major presence at the multiple solidarity events that have been held since the Writers Guild strike began on May 1.
But while the union’s support has been unwavering and crew workers have regularly been seen joining the picket lines, IATSE members make up a significant portion of the entertainment workforce that is the first to face financial struggle when Hollywood shuts down — be it from a global pandemic in 2020 or during a labor strike like now.
“My bills are low, but I’m draining my life savings,” Hernandez said. “For me personally, I’m starting to get nervous about my medical insurance because my wife has chronic pain.”
Hernandez is just one of thousands of crew workers who have burned through their emergency savings and that will likely play a factor next year when IATSE is set to begin its own talks on a new three-year bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the studios’ bargaining representative.
That means that IATSE, and its many chapters in Los Angeles and across the country, have had a lot of work on their hands providing support for their out-of-work members even as they also prepare for their own contract negotiations with Hollywood studios next summer.
“With so much focus on writers and actors, and the struggles they are facing, it is easy to forget that there’s thousands of crew members [who are] affected by these strikes,” said Corey Moore, a business agent for IATSE Local 80, which covers motion picture grips, first aid workers, craft service employees, marine and warehouse workers.
Moore pointed out that the financial woes for production workers began well ahead of the official start of the strike. As FilmLA’s quarterly production reports have shown, shooting for movies and TV shows were already starting to decline as early as January.
While productions — and job opportunities for crews — were plentiful in 2021 and 2022 as studios rushed to make up for lost time during the pandemic, those dried up as 2023 began with studios preparing for a strike. That has led to workers like Hernandez having to dip into financial reserves weeks, sometimes even months, before the industry officially shut down.
“Even work on commercials was dropping because advertisers didn’t want to spend money on those commercials if there was going to be a lack of new TV programming,” Moore said.
To help those members, IATSE and its locals have set up a variety of programs as the strike has carried on over the summer in addition to $4 million in donations to strike support funds such as the Motion Picture & Television Fund and the Entertainment Community Fund.
Among them have been a pair of food drives, first at the union’s Burbank offices in July, and then at the MPTF headquarters in Woodland Hills last week, to provide food and other essential items to entertainment workers and families in need. Other unions and groups like Teamsters Local 399 and the L.A. County Federation of Labor have partnered with IATSE during these drives.
Work is being done on the local level, too. IATSE Local 80 has been holding biweekly virtual meetings to update members on available strike support resources and has set up a food pantry in its headquarters to provide free groceries to members trying to save money. Local 728, which represents lighting technicians, has launched its own strike fund to offer $1,300 grants to members in need.
IATSE members at risk of losing their healthcare coverage may also qualify for eligibility assistance being made available by the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan, which is run jointly by the AMPTP and Hollywood unions and provides healthcare on IATSE’s behalf.
But while these resources are helping IATSE members, they can’t completely undo the financial strain that much of the union’s rank-and-file have faced this year.
For members like costume supervisor Sarah Basta, that is a major concern. Basta, a 16-year member of IATSE Local 705, fears that many IATSE members won’t have the financial security to withstand another strike and that the studios will use that as leverage against the union during next year’s talks.
“It could well be a studio tactic to draw this out so that members can’t afford their lifestyles or to afford basic needs,” she said. “For IATSE to potentially go on strike a year from now… this strike now has expended us in a way that is going to make it much more difficult.”
Just as WGA and SAG-AFTRA organized around long-standing issues regarding wages and working conditions, there are several key points regarding IATSE’s Hollywood Basic Agreement and Area Standards Agreements left unresolved by the union’s last contract, which sharply divided members and was only ratified by the narrowest of margins in 2021.
While some key gains were won in that previous contract, including raises in hourly wages for the lowest paying IATSE positions like writers assistants, many members opposed the contract over multiple missing pieces, such as an annual wage increase that didn’t keep up with inflation and rising costs of living.
Another key issue in IATSE’s contract that was only partially addressed was the issue of turnarounds, as production crew members organized around ending loopholes that forced them to work over 16 hours on many shoots and left them without even enough time to get a full night’s sleep.
The 2021 agreements mandated at least 10 hours of turnaround time for all productions, reducing some of the rest period abuses on productions that often have long daily shooting periods, like the first seasons of TV shows. But for other productions that already operate on 10-hour turnaround, those loophole closures offered no substantial change.
On top of those lingering issues from 2021 is one that has been the most talked about element of this summer’s strike: artificial intelligence.
While the WGA’s talks with the AMPTP over AI have been largely about potential abuse of such technology in the future, and SAG-AFTRA’s issues with the technology are about consent and compensation for actors if studios wish to create digital replicas of them, the existential threat to the jobs of many IATSE workers is even more immediate.
“If studios start scanning all the background actors so that they can be replicated digitally, then that means that there’s less of a need for me as a costume supervisor to dress those people,” Basta said. “There’s less [of] a need for me to pull clothes for all those background actors because they’re all going to be replaced by AI. That’s 10 or 20 days of work for costumers that are gone.”
In July, IATSE released its “core principles” with regards to AI, announcing a comprehensive program that would research the myriad ways new technology is currently and expected to change different categories of union-covered jobs. Some of the larger locals in the union, including the Motion Picture Editors Guild and the Art Directors Guild, have launched their own task forces to investigate how AI will change how their members do their jobs and how they could be exploited.
The core principles suggests that IATSE will be taking an approach to AI similar to SAG-AFTRA: searching for ways to help union members adapt to and possibly even benefit from the changes AI will bring, but also fighting for safeguards against an automation wave that could render many below-the-line jobs obsolete — whether those protections come from government regulation or negotiations with AMPTP.
“We commit to negotiating provisions that address AI into our future contracts. IATSE demands transparency from employers regarding their use of AI, even in the absence of relevant government legislation,” IATSE said in the section of its core principles document regarding collective bargaining. “We are dedicated to safeguarding our members’ privacy rights and ensuring that AI applications adhere to the highest ethical standards, including non-discrimination and fairness.”
Preparations on the 2024 contract talks have already begun, with union insiders telling TheWrap that some locals have already held meetings with members asking about their key concerns and preparing them for how they believe negotiations will go. Though IATSE’s local system makes its structure different than WGA or SAG-AFTRA, the union is hoping to organize its members into a united force similar to what those two unions have publicly displayed during their strikes this summer.
In the meantime, crew members like Sarah Basta and Javier Hernandez continue to march in solidarity with the writers and actors, in the hope that such support will be reciprocated if they need to take up pickets themselves.
“If we have to strike, we’re going to be burned out,” Hernandez said. “So I hope the other unions remember we’re out here and will do the same for us.”
For all of TheWrap’s strike coverage, click here.