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Hollywood’s behind-the-scenes workers reach deal on new contract

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LOS ANGELES — You could say that the people behind the cameras have found their voice.

Late Saturday, a union representing the Hollywood version of workers — cameramen, makeup artists, prop makers, set dressers, lighting technicians, editors, script coordinators, hairstylists, cinematographers, writing assistants — reached a preliminary agreement for a new three-year contract with film and television studios, according to officials on both sides.

The union, IATSE, which stands for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, had said its members would go on strike from Monday, a move that would have led to a production shutdown at a particularly inopportune time for the entertainment industry.

The studios, including stalwarts like Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia and insurgents like Amazon, Apple and Netflix, have been scrambling to make up for lost production time during the coronavirus pandemic. Another shutdown would have left content cabinets dangerously bare — especially at streaming services, a business that has become crucial to the reputation of some Wall Street companies.

IATSE negotiators came to a deal after winning concessions on several fronts.

Crews now get a minimum of 54 hours of weekend rest – comparable to actors for the first time. (Previously, studios were not required to give crews weekend rest, although they did have to pay overtime.) Crews are also given a minimum rest of 10 hours between leaving a set and being required to return, which IATSE deemed the rest essential for personal health, especially since shoots can routinely last as long as 18 hours. The proposed contract also includes pay increases and a commitment by the companies to fund a $400 million shortfall in the IATSE retirement and health plan without imposing premiums or increasing the cost of health insurance.

Studios will also give crews an extra day off by finally recognizing Martin Luther King’s birthday, which has been a federal holiday since 1983.

“We went hand in hand with some of the richest and most powerful entertainment and technology companies in the world,” Matthew Loeb, IATSE’s president, said in a statement, calling the deal “a Hollywood ending” for the union.

A spokesperson for the studios, Jarryd Gonzales, confirmed the agreement, but had no immediate comment.

IATSE has 150,000 members in the United States and Canada. However, the disputed contract covered only about 60,000, the majority of whom were in the Los Angeles area, followed by some workers in manufacturing centers such as Georgia and New Mexico. Most of the union’s other 90,000 members work in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. But they have another contract that was not expired.

Still, the solidarity within IATSE was remarkable, with members in New York making it clear on Twitter and Instagram that if a partial strike was called, they would treat it as a full one. For their part, the 60,000 members with the expired contract voted two weeks ago — by a margin of 99 percent — to approve a strike.

Crews have long felt undervalued in Hollywood, where hierarchies are not subtle. The discontent became even more palpable as the crews returned to the sets after the pandemic. As with workers in many occupations, the downtime had given crews a new perspective on work-life balance. To make matters worse, studios and streaming services began to speed up content assembly lines to make up for lost time.

Anger turned to rage over the summer when Ben Gottlieb, a young Brooklyn lighting engineer, Instagram page committed to work related horror stories. Since then, more than 1,100 entertainment employees have posted poignant anecdotes to the page, which has 159,000 followers.

During the negotiations, which began in May, the Hollywood companies insisted that they were taking IATSE’s demands seriously and negotiating in good faith. An organization called the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers negotiates union contracts for the studios. The organization has been led by Carol Lombardini since 2009 and not a single entertainment-related union has gone on national strike during her tenure. She has worked for the group since its founding in 1982.

But many studio executives personally greeted IATSE’s aggressive negotiating stance with a shrug, noting that the union had never staged a significant strike in its 128-year history. Crews represented by a union had not run a picket line since World War II. At the time, IATSE was controlled by the Chicago Mafia, who bribed studios to thwart labor unrest. (The crews who went on strike in 1945 were part of the now-defunct Conference of Studio Unions.)

Boosting studios’ confidence that IATSE would blink in the current negotiations: Crew members had just weathered the financial difficulties of a pandemic production shutdown, and IATSE has no strike fund.

Alarm bells only started ringing in Hollywood’s ranks on Wednesday. That’s when Mr Loeb said in a statement that “the pace of negotiations does not reflect a sense of urgency” and set Monday as the strike date. Ominous comments from IATSE followed on Thursday. “If the studios want to argue, they’ve poked the wrong bear,” the union said on Twitter. Another union post quoted JRR Tolkien: “War must be, as we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour everything.”

Studios has pushed to minimize IATSE profits for a variety of reasons. Production costs have already skyrocketed due to coronavirus safety measures, and longer rest periods and higher wages are putting profitability even more at risk. Costs associated with Covid-19 safety protocols can cut a project’s budget by as much as 20 per cent, say producers.

To lure subscribers, streaming services offer exorbitant paydays to A-list actors, directors and producers. That means looking for cost savings in other areas, including crews, or what’s known in the entertainment industry as below the line work.

And the companies worried about backlash: Notable contractual gains by crews will inevitably encourage other unions. The Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, all have contract negotiations underway, with streaming at the center.

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