In recent weeks, members of the union IATSE — the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — have been sharing their experiences, many of them posting anonymously on the Instagram account ia_stories.
Camera operators, editors, grips, makeup and hair stylists, costumers, writers assistants and more have posted about low pay, exhausting hours, and dangerous working conditions. Some have turned to drugs and alcohol, and relationships have suffered.
For months, IATSE has been in contract negotiations with the studios to address basic working conditions and pay scales for tens of thousands of crewmembers in Los Angeles and beyond. But those talks have stalled.
The studios are represented in labor matters by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The AMPTP says money is tight due to the pandemic, and the studios have already offered “a generous comprehensive package.”
But for a lot of IATSE members, what the studios are offering is not nearly enough. In the coming days, members of 13 chapters of IATSE will take a strike authorization vote. If successful, that would give the union more leverage in negotiations as a strike would paralyze production.
Shawn Waugh, script coordinator and member of IATSE Local 871, plans to vote yes. He has worked on shows including “Castle,” “Fear the Walking Dead,” the “Waco” miniseries and “The Last OG.”
Waugh describes the role of script coordinator as “the conduit between the writers room and the rest of the outside world.”
This means he’s often staying up late to revise a script based on notes from a showrunner, and then starting early the next morning to get updated information to on-set crews. If he makes a mistake, there could be delays and more expenses added to the production.
Waugh also says even when he’s not officially on the clock, he’s expected to have his laptop with him at all times, in case he needs to make changes to a script.
“I have actually been required to leave a funeral so that I could get on my computer and start addressing a draft that needed to be published that day,” says Waugh. “Feeling like your entire life is under the thumb of production and the needs of a show is very tiring and harmful.”
When considering the possibility of a strike, Waugh says, “I’m not necessarily for or against a strike, but if the only way that all of our needs can be met is to hold a strike authorization and use that as a bargaining chip for the studios to take us seriously, then that’s the direction I would fall because that’s the one that will actually keep all of our members safer and healthier.”
The issues highlighted in IATSE’s clash with the studios are not new. In 2006, legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who won Oscars for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Bound for Glory,” made the documentary “Who Needs Sleep?” about the dangers of long work hours and sleep deprivation.
Wexler started working on “Who Needs Sleep?” following the 1997 death of Brent Hershman, an assistant camera operator who fell asleep and died in a car crash after a 19-hour day on the set of the movie “Pleasantville.”
In 2014, the then 92-year-old Wexler joined KCRW on The Business to talk about the dangers posed by grueling shifts. He said he’d only seen the hours get longer since Hershman's death.
“We want work, we want the overtime, we delude ourselves into thinking we’re being artists, or we’re making great films. And if we don’t do it, they won’t hire us. So with all those factors there, we’re going to be quiet.”
When Wexler was on the show seven years ago, Kim Masters asked him about IATSE, and why at that point, the union had been unable to successfully push for shorter shifts.
“After Brent Hershman's death,” said Wexler, “The IA, the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild ... all the representatives of people who make the films [said], ‘Excessive hours have got to go.’ But then, [the studios] said to all those groups, ‘We’re in charge. Forget that. You don’t mess with our managerial flexibility.’ And those people who were set to protect people backed off.”
It will soon be clear whether that is about to change. If so, Wexler won’t be here to see it — he passed away in 2015.