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IATSE Worker: “Halyna Hutchins would be alive if we had gone on strike”

Left Voice is highlighting the voices of rank-and-file IATSE members on the working conditions in the entertainment industry and why they think the tentative agreement being put forward by the union leadership is inadequate. Here we share an email we received from a member of local 706.

Left Voice

October 27, 2021
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Photo: Haley Manbeck

Left Voice is seeking to highlight the voices of rank-and-file members of IATSE on the working conditions in the entertainment industry and why they think the tentative agreement being put forward by IATSE leadership is inadequate. Today, we are honored to share an email we received from a Journeywoman Hairstylist. This email has been edited for clarity and is republished anonymously with the worker’s permission. If you are a member of IATSE and want to share your voice, please reach out to us either via our social media or [email protected].

I live in Los Angeles and am a Hairstylist and IATSE Local 706 member. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts, a Master of Fine Arts in Wig and Makeup Design, and have been a licensed cosmetologist in 4 states since 1994. I have never had a ”day job.” This has been the career I trained for and I have done it all my working life. The first 20 years of my career was in theatre but I got tired of being paid less and less for the same or more work so I decided to move to Hollywood to work in film/TV in 2013. So I haven’t been in this world as long as many, but it has definitely been the nail in the coffin for my love of this industry. 

Like anyone, I started with high hopes and have had some amazing opportunities and accolades (including an Emmy Award), for which I am not ungrateful. However, the trade-offs of life balance and mental and physical health have proved too much for me to bear. The entertainment industry is tough and has periodically left me fighting for my sanity, but the film/TV business has taken it to a whole new level. 

When Covid happened I decided to step away out of the necessity of self-preservation. I know many went back as soon as the safety protocols were in place (and of course the abuses resumed rather quickly after that despite us all being reassured that 10-hour shooting days would be the norm and that our safety was top priority). I chose to stay away because I was afraid. I am single, no children, no close family, few friends, in large part due to the demands of this business. Who was supposed to take care of me if I got Covid? Who was supposed to wrap up my affairs if I died? So I basically haven’t worked with any regularity since February 2020. It is the first time in my adult life I have been able to justifiably rest and re-evaluate everything, as it has been for many. Due to both physical (neck and back) and mental health problems caused by working in this industry, I was ”fortunate” enough to be on disability [insurance] for a good part of 2020 and into 2021, which is how I kept afloat financially.

After I was fully vaccinated, I decided to try to go back to work as a day checker, which means that I did not have a full-time position on a show but that I would just be over-hire on multiple shows on an as needed basis. This meant more freedom, and less responsibility (less drama, less exhaustion, less potential for abuse, easier to walk away). I am also a freelance wigmaker, which is not a union position and therefore does not have any healthcare or pension benefits, but is more suited to my introverted nature and the only thing left of this craft that I really enjoy doing anymore. I had already made the decision to work on developing this industry-adjacent career shift, including teaching, during the pandemic, but in order to keep my union health insurance I have to work a minimum number of hours on set every 6 months to qualify. So though this is not the ”Hollywood dream” I envisioned when I moved to Los Angeles, it became increasingly clear that it was/is the only way I can survive this career. At 51 years old I don’t have the luxury of time for a ”do over.”

My second day back on set after over a Covid year away was a split (half day/half night) that turned into an overnight, clocking in a 15 hour day. Remote location, and cold without adequate means to get/stay warm. Driving home in morning rush hour, bumper-to-bumper traffic, rising sun in my eyes, nodding off at the wheel, tears streaming down my face, I began a (not my first) mental breakdown. I became suicidal and spent another 9 weeks on a new disability claim in an intensive outpatient program for treatment resistant major depressive disorder. Definitely not the dream, or anything close to what I had envisioned at the over half-way mark of my life.

Fast forward to today, I have mostly recovered though staying emotionally well is sometimes a minute-by-minute proposition. I am still developing my exit strategy while simultaneously having to take on set days to have hours to go toward my health insurance and have some money to pay my bills in the transition. It is difficult to feel I’m making headway when the focus has to be split like this, but I don’t see any other option for me. The financial security of my future is uncertain and I am afraid. I came to this party too late to have any real retirement security with a motion picture pension only starting around age 46.

Having resigned myself to phasing  out, I didn’t really feel I had much skin in the game anymore regarding this IATSE Basic Agreement Negotiation, aside from maybe just making things a little less painful for me in the transition process. But as the worker momentum started to build, I started to get angry too. Angry that the working conditions of this industry have left me feeling like an empty shell of a human being and killed my passion. Angry that if things were different maybe I would still love my job and be building my financial future up on a solid existing foundation instead of a lateral or downward pivot in mid-life. Angry for being devalued, taken for granted, and deemed replaceable by some of the richest corporations in the history of the world. The capitalist structure and injustices in this country are bad enough but THIS is a whole new level of what I regularly refer to as end-stage-capitalism. I got excited to see the WORLD say NO MORE, to see masses of people quitting their jobs and going on strike. I WANTED TO STRIKE. I wanted to walk the picket lines. I wanted (want) the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] and especially the streamers to BLEED MONEY…the only language they understand. And, at the 11th hour, all that momentum felt like it went up in a puff of smoke. No consequences, business as usual Monday morning at 5am (or earlier) for most of my colleagues. Most people I know were looking forward to striking simply to be able to get some rest. What more is there to really say about that?

I remember the 2018 contract negotiation. ”It’s the best deal in decades,” they said. ”It’s the best deal we could have hoped for,” they said. And then the cigar-passing, champagne popping, spin-doctored ”vote yes” campaign started by the local and international negotiating committees revved right up. Sound familiar? It should, because it’s deja vu all over again.

*********************************************************

Since I stepped away from this email and returned to complete it, Halyna Hutchins is dead. Another death on another set from a whole cascade of safety fuck-ups and negligence on top of gross abuses of an overworked crew. Definitely makes my story seem small and insignificant by comparison now. If you believe in signs from the universe, I can’t possibly think of another unfolding of events that could drive the desperate need for change home any harder than this.

The vote yes campaign for this tentative contract is in full force. Gaslighting and fear mongering coming in hot from our local and international IATSE leadership. Zoom Town Halls full of emotional blackmail and cherry-picked information. Social media enables the rank and file of the 13 locals to talk to each other and compare notes about what we are being told in these meetings and the disparity of information is astonishing. Up is down, right is left, and no one really knows what to believe. There is still a huge feeling that we cannot accept this deal, but as fatigue and analysis paralysis sets in due to the confusing and contradictory messaging, I don’t know how much longer that momentum will last. We were united, but our own leadership is sowing the division now. We are turning on each other and in the process, the AMPTP is laughing all the way to the bank.

It is true that the threat of the strike got us to the point that there were no giveaways, some maintenance of status quo, and several modest gains. It is also true that because of this we were unable to strike  because that would have constituted bad faith bargaining. But the overarching truth is that our leadership did not ask for enough in the first place. The gains are not going to sufficiently protect our safety, give us reasonable rest, or fund our pension and healthcare for the long haul. Our only recourse now is to gamble with a no vote to see if we can get more while simultaneously risking the loss of what was gained in the tentative agreement. We cannot get a solid answer on whether or not our strike authorization is still in effect or if we would have to take another vote for another authorization. And even if we do this, that is no guarantee [IATSE International President] Loeb will use it. We are between the proverbial rock and a hard place, literally damned if we do and damned if we don’t. My feeling is we will be crushed either way, the question is just a matter of to what degree. 

You might be interested in: “The Money Is There”: Interview with an IATSE Worker

The culture of this industry has directed the trajectory of my entire life, and more negatively than positively, I feel. I know the grass is always greener, but did I really deserve to be so enmeshed in a job that I have never been able to cultivate a successful relationship, family life, or fulfilling friendships, or to have time or energy for interests outside of the grind of work? Didn’t people fight and die for a labor movement so that we could have protections and not be exploited by our employers until we drop dead or are killed on the job? Why as workers are we losing ground in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness guaranteed by our Constitution? WHY?

I’m voting no on this contract proposal because I honestly don’t think anything is going to change much either way, so I might as well at least keep my dignity and not sell out for table scraps.

As far as how union leadership is handling these demands, I think I have been pretty clear on that already, but I would like to say that I think the real problem is at the very top. I have seen nothing to indicate that my local leadership isn’t just as gaslit as the rest of us by Matt Loeb. A fish rots from the head. Something just doesn’t feel right. Corruption has always been rife in IATSE from the beginning. If we really want to be a strong democratic union force then we need to win the right for the membership to be able to vote directly for our International President. The Teamsters fought for and won this right, and they are a formidable bargaining force. Checks and balances. 

We will never be that strong and there is too much room for back door deals with the delegate voting system we have in place. Power is concentrated at the top and they wield it in a way that benefits them, first and foremost with their 6 figure salaries and the double or more percentage wage increases than they bargain for the rest of us. Why should a membership want to be engaged and fight when this whole process has shown what little difference it makes in the outcome in the end? It doesn’t make me want to stay in this fight. And we need lawyers that are as ruthless as those of the AMPTP at the negotiating table. 

The following was sent as a follow-up the day after this essay was written:

Just a thought I forgot to include in my email: Halyna Hutchins would be alive today if we had been able to strike. Let that sink in. 

Final thought.  We haven’t seen the actual contract (Memorandum of Agreement) yet, and while I seriously doubt it will change my position, I will put in my due diligence reading and considering every word before the final vote is cast.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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