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IATSE Workers Deserve Democracy

Two worker-organizers in the tech industry explain the undemocratic nature of the IATSE contract ratification process, and what real union democracy would look like.

Morgan Barrows

October 21, 2021
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On Saturday night, the leadership of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) came to a tentative agreement that covers the new contract for the West Coast Film and Television workers in IATSE. This tentative agreement (TA), which has not yet been ratified, and has only been shared so far in bullet points and not in its entirety, temporarily halted a massive potential strike authorized by a staggering 98 percent of the 60,000 IATSE rank and file workers. These workers are demanding a reduction in work hours, higher wages, a fully funded pension program, and residual payments from streaming services, which are now a huge share of the film and television market and the primary way that many of these workers will see their work on screen. We can say, as tech workers organizing in our own industry, that this level of organization and willingness to fight is the stuff of dreams. 

However, to many rank and file workers’ enormous disappointment, the tentative agreement does not live up to the workers’ demands. This has led to mounting pressure from the rank and file on social media to vote “no” on the TA send the bargaining committee back to the negotiating table with management (in this case, the AMPTP), and begin the strike. There have even been calls to replace IATSE President Matthew Loeb. Not only does the TA seemingly fail to include any coverage of streaming residuals or agreements from streaming companies to contribute to the union’s pension fund, but also it did not get anywhere close to the popular workers’ demand for 12 hours of union-mandated time off between shifts. The TA includes a mandated minimum of ten hours off between getting off work and starting work the next morning. Especially when LA traffic is taken into account, this is hardly enough time to eat and sleep, not to mention having any of the other important social and family time that makes life worth living. Long hours are routine in Hollywood, but the conditions these workers are under would shock the turn of the century workers who drove the labor movement demands for “8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, and 8 hours for what we will.”

Many IATSE workers were dismayed by the content of the TA, and to make matters worse many of them found out about it from the news instead of from their own union representatives. Now, these workers must wait for the full content of the TA to be released, and then will vote for or against it in their 13 West Coast studio locals, which may cast “as many winner-take-all votes as the number of delegates they had at the union’s last convention.” This twisted electoral college will tally said votes into a singular “yes” or “no” for each local. This type of voting system tends to skew against the popular vote and thus override it, like with IATSE’s most recent contract ratification in 2018, when the popular vote of the rank and file came out to about 53% in favor and 47% against, while the electoral vote count came out to 81% in favor to 19% against. In that case, the final result did align with the majority of the popular vote, but with significantly less of a mandate from the rank and file than the electoral vote count would have you believe. 

Why is a union, a supposed vehicle of workplace democracy, so un-democratic? The sheer volume of messages on social media from IATSE workers after the TA was announced Saturday night begs the question: how did it get so bad? How could a bargaining committee, supposed representatives of the rank-and-file, armed with both an overwhelming authorization vote for IATSE’s first union-wide strike in its history and with overwhelming public support, so easily throw out the workers’ priorities in exchange for what was “feasible?” What led them to compromise so harshly on bread-and-butter issues like working hours? No union should operate like this, yet today, many do. This isn’t just union representatives and salaried employees of the union being bad at their jobs of representing workers’ interests; this is the result of procedural choices to consolidate decision making within the bureaucracy, intentionally shifting control away from the rank-and-file.

And what would a better system look like? If we could design our own union’s processes from scratch, this is what we would do:

When it comes to negotiating the fundamentals of our working conditions, every worker deserves a seat at the table. The basics of this are simple: the rank-and-file workers have to have the full contract and time to read it before they vote. There must be a popular vote of the membership, not electoral college shenanigans. There have to be democratic spaces to discuss and debate the contents of a TA, and hold their leaders accountable for its contents, so that members don’t have to just think about it by themselves and vote alone.

In a perfect world, designed by workers with their best interests at heart, these stipulations would not be difficult to achieve. This is true not just of IATSE, but of any industry or type of workplace. Before contract bargaining even begins, workers should meet in assemblies that are department-wide, team-wide, company-wide, union-wide, local-wide, etc, and decide what they want in the contract and what their priorities are. Workers should have an opportunity to have their voices heard and learn from their coworkers and comrades what their workplace conditions are like and how they can all stand together to improve conditions for and with each other. In this way, they’ll learn from each other about demands that can and cannot be compromised on. During this process, workers can build and vote on a list of non-negotiable demands: “if we don’t get a 12-hour rest between shifts, we’ll strike. If we don’t get health insurance that covers our basic needs, we’ll strike.” Union leaders should be held to such votes; if the workers unflinchingly take up the enormous undertaking of a strike, a strike should begin.

Before contract bargaining begins, unions currently negotiate with management (in IATSE’s case, AMPTP) about the rules for bargaining itself. Workers should always do their best to negotiate for open bargaining sessions, where any rank-and-file worker who wishes to can attend and observe bargaining sessions, and union leaders actively mobilize members to attend. Barring that, the union should bargain for as much openness to the rank and file as possible. Anything that can lessen the feeling for workers of the union being a third-party, anything that can show more rank and file workers just how dastardly bosses can be during negotiations, and any opportunity to gather a large number of rank and file workers in an action where they experience the feeling of all acting together to make positive change in their lives, is a huge advantage in the effort to mobilize the rank and file, even before any contract is signed. Choosing not to fight for this is tantamount to attempting to consolidate power away from the rank and file workers.

You might be interested in: “Keeping the Status Quo Is Not Enough”: Why IATSE Members Will Be Voting No On the Tentative Agreement

Next, workers should elect their bargaining committee from scratch every time a new contract gets drawn up. The committee should be made up of a broad cross-section of the rank and file, not just demographically, but also in job description and seniority. Said committee will have the opportunity to sit at the table and have information that those not at the table won’t have access to, but they should not see themselves as empowered to make decisions for other workers. Bargaining committee members are not congresspeople, they should be mouthpieces for the rank and file. Their job must be to provide two-way communication between the bargaining table and all the rank and file workers, such that the contents of a TA should not be a surprise to the rank and file once it is released. The rank and file and the bargaining committee should be on the same page about what compromises were made and why they happened. If the bargaining committee doesn’t live up to their responsibilities, members of the committee must be recallable, not just on a multi-year election cycle, but any time members of the rank and file gather enough signatures to call a new election, including during the bargaining process.

Once a TA is reached, it should be released in full to all of the workers before or simultaneously as it is released to the press. Workers should have the time and space to discuss the full text of the agreement with each other in assemblies of different sizes (workplace-wide, local-wide, union-wide). In these discussions, workers will vote yes or no, and if the majority votes no, the workers can put together proposed amendments for the bargaining committee and send them back to the table. Another outcome of this process would be the very tangible experience for each worker directly in the struggle, of feeling like their voice is heard and that they have a direct opportunity to have a say in what happens with their contract. This experience allows them to remember that  they’re connected to every other worker in the union and learn about other workers’ priorities and struggles. 

These are not original ideas of our own; many unions around the world practice this kind of real workplace democracy. For example, the union at FaSinPat in Argentina dismantled its union bureaucracy entirely, and workers’ assemblies are now the highest decision-making body in the union. There is, indeed, another way.

IATSE members, like all members of the working class, deserve workplace democracy. At the moment, their union bylaws do not allow for the kind of representation each worker deserves, so we echo the growing call from many IATSE members in the past few days to vote no on this first TA, and encourage them to participate in upcoming local-wide town halls and push leadership to treat these town halls like assemblies where every worker can speak their mind, discuss every word of the agreement, and propose amendments to send back to the bargaining committee. If union leadership pressures the rank and file to accept a deal they do not want, these IATSE members should self-organize to vote down the TA as many times as they need to, and continue bravely preparing to strike. We call also on rank-and-file members of SAG and WGA, as well as non-Hollywood unions, to continue publicly showing solidarity with the IATSE rank and file, and support them if they do strike by donating to their strike fund, putting their bodies on picket lines, and pressuring AMPTP to accept the workers’ demands. Being vocal now by letting IATSE members know they’d be supported if they continue to fight for better pay, working hours, and benefits, would be immensely powerful. The swell of pride workers feel when our anger and desire for better conditions for ourselves and others is validated by other workers has fortified many, many picket lines.

The members of IATSE can begin to take back control of their union. This may involve big election fights, huge assemblies to draft and adopt new bylaws or amendments, and struggles for the heart of the union itself. This will be difficult, but so is mobilizing 98 percent of the union to authorize a strike. The courageous rank and filers of IATSE are already an inspiration for workers everywhere, and we will cheer for every struggle they take on. 

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