Production and Streaming services looking at a computer together. (Image: Apple, Netflix, Disney+, Warner Brother, and Netflix.)

TV and Film Production Crew Workers Are Going on Strike. Here’s Why.

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With increased visibility online and nowhere else to turn (glares at Congress), many working in dangerous conditions have begun to strike. From Alabama coal miners to Nabisco workers nationwide, workers are organizing to fix labor issues that existed before the pandemic and, in many cases, have worsened. The latest industry to join the growing list of vocal laborers is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE.)

Made up of behind-the-scenes workers from set builders to make-up artists that work across networks and streaming platforms, the IATSE makes our favorite shows possible. Their three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) ended in late July, and even with a five-week extension, they have failed to reach an agreement.

After weeks of pressure, members of the IATSE held a motion to initiate a national strike. Today, 99% of the 150,000 IATSE union members voted yes. Their demands include safe working hours, livable wages, required breaks (lunch, rest, between days, etc.), and increased pay for those working in “new media” (a.k.a. streaming services).

Founded in 1893, this strike marks the first time in the IATSE’s history that members of the union voted in favor of a nationwide strike. If this continues and picks up steam without the AMPTP respecting the IATSE’s demands then we are on track to experience something similar to the three-month 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America (WGA) Strike. This changed the course of American TV and made baby steps in fair compensation for writers.

Similar to the IATSE, WGA wanted fairer compensation in a burgeoning digital media landscape. Back in 2008, Netflix did exist, but it didn’t start streaming exclusive content until 2012. So, you either watched a show live, DVR’d it, or paid for the show by the episode. The pay-by-the-episode method was to watch it on your computer or the newly released iPod Nano.

Thousands of support staff were laid off due to the decline in viewership in scripted TV as the writers participated in the strike. Most late-night shows took a hit, losing an average of 65% of their viewers, especially after the historic 2008 election settled down a few days into the strike. The only part of TV that came out on top during the strike was unscripted shows like reality TV (because they had no competition). Like the WGA strike, the IATSE strike will first affect shows with a quick turnaround, before hitting longer-term projects.

Speaking of writers, they and stars from shows like Big Mouth, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, The Boys, American Horror Story, Frankie & GraceThe Good Place, The Nanny, Marvel’s What If?, Midnight Mass, and Never Have I Ever—among many, many others—voiced support for this vote and for the IATSE’s demands to be met. Other major field unions like the WGA and Screen Actors Guild voiced support.

Until last week, Scarlett Johansson was also embroiled in a public battle with Disney for their violation of her contract. While I hate to defend her, she was cheated out of money from Disney when her contract promised a percentage of ticket sales for a planned theatrical release, but Disney decided to put the movie on Disney+ for streaming the same day. Disney claimed this was a moral choice due to the COVID-19 pandemic—which they had no moral authority on when they reopened their parks in July 2020.

If they can cheat the face of a project out of millions in compensation, imagine what it is like for the hundreds of thousands of others behind the scenes. According to the LA Times, AMPTP represents companies like Disney, Apple, Warner Brothers, Amazon, and Netflix.

Because there has been a much overdue a shift away from wearing “I’m overworked” as a badge of honor (both here and abroad), I think there is a good chance this can garner wider support, especially considering how desperate production companies are in trying to make up for the time lost due to the first year of the pandemic. My hope is that the strike organized by the IATSE pressures AMPTP and others to agree to their demands—if not for the fact that workers deserve fair compensation and safe working conditions, then because they fear for the decline of this golden age of TV.

(image: Apple, Netflix, Disney+, Warner Brother, and Netflix.)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.