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“We Feel Angry, We Feel Unheard”: IATSE Workers Speak Out on the Betrayal of Their Leadership

Left Voice reached out to IATSE workers and asked for their thoughts on the newly ratified contract. Despite an overwhelming vote to strike and a majority “no” vote, union bureaucracy and undemocratic voting rules betrayed the rank-and-file worker’s demands for better working conditions.

Left Voice

November 22, 2021
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IATSE members marching, carrying a banner that reads "The Union Behind Entertainment"

The International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) recently voted on a new contract. Even though the majority of workers voted against the contract, it passed anyway because of IATSE’S antidemocratic electoral college system. This is only the latest in a long line of betrayals from the IATSE leadership, who squandered a strike authorization vote (which 97 percent voted in favor of) and forced through a contract that does nothing to address the main demands of workers — namely their low pay and long work hours. 

It is manueveurs such as these that have led to massive demoralization and anger among the rank-and-file workers of IATSE. The union bureaucracy made it known that their allegiances do not lie with the workers, but with the entertainment bosses, in order to guarantee their bloated salaries — IATSE president Matt Loeb makes $490,000 a year. 

This betrayal pulls back the curtain on the IATSE leadership and shows the rank-and-file exactly where they stand. The rank-and-file must fight to win true democracy within their union, to retake their union and make it fight for them, through democratically built self-organization.

The union leaders and the bosses are hoping that this sell-out will demobilize the rank-and-file and contain their militancy. They hope that the militancy IATSE members have shown and their willingness to fight will give way to despair and defeatism. 

Left Voice spoke to several rank-and-file IATSE workers to hear their opinion on the new contract and their leadership. These statements are raw, angry, and — at times — disheartened. We publish these testimonies to give a voice to the IATSE rank-and-file, to help provide a forum for IATSE members to begin to openly discuss where they go from here. 

Despair, in the face of such a clear and devastating betrayal, is perfectly natural. But we must — as workers — let our despair transform into rage, which then transforms into militancy. Loeb and his cronies hope that this will take the wind out of the sails of the movement to rewrite the way the entertainment industry works — a broken industry that utra-exploits its workers to the point that IATSE member Halyna Hutchins died due to unsafe work conditions during the contract ratification process — and force workers to accept a continuation of the status quo. IATSE members specifically, but entertainment workers in general, can’t let that happen. Let this radicalize us, rather than de-mobilize us.

If you are an IATSE worker and would like to add your voice to the discussion of the contract fight and the steps ahead, please get in contact with us at [email protected]

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Stephen D. Chang, Los Angeles, California (IATSE Local 80 Grip)

I’m extremely disappointed in our leadership. We have been betrayed by our delegates. They have squandered the momentum of the biggest labor movement in our union’s history. The ratification of this contract is yet another example of why electoral systems across all platforms should be abolished. They are anti-democratic and do not faithfully represent the will of the people.

Everyone I know personally is dissatisfied with how the vote went down and the agreement itself. The old guard considers it a “Hollywood ending” because we didn’t lose anything, but the younger generation is displeased because we feel we didn’t gain anything. All we did was keep the status quo, which is what we wanted to improve in the first place.

Many of us, myself included, are unsure of where to go from here. The next contract negotiation won’t take place for another three years. I know many people who have already started to plan their exit from the industry. With this new contract, none of our working conditions will actually improve. The quality of life of our workforce is still just an afterthought for these production companies and streaming conglomerates. They value profit over people. Always have and always will.

Anonymous, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Makeup)

It’s awful and I’m devastated. Everyone I know is devastated. Leadership ignored us entirely, and many of us want to wildcat strike but are terrified of the repercussions. Basically, the entertainment industry is abusing us for profit. They want to get streaming shows out ASAP or films onto streaming platforms as fast as possible but don’t care about the human cost.

Nobody I know voted yes, and nobody I know agrees with how this leadership ignored the popular vote. My coworkers and friends are devastated because we cannot continue to work this way. Many are considering leaving the industry. We feel angry. We feel unheard.

We are not sure what to do next because it feels like the only options available will result in expulsion from our union, which is exactly what AMPTP would want — forced silence from IATSE members. I honestly feel like we need to wildcat strike as a whole because if we do, they cannot fire us all, and they cannot find replacements for a specialized labor force.

Anonymous, Hollywood, California (Editors Guild, Local 700)

I am very disappointed in the contract ratification, as are many of my colleagues. We feel exploited and betrayed. In urging a strike authorization vote, Matt Loeb told the membership that this negotiation was about “the physical and emotional suffering of our members and their loved ones,” “punishing and unrealistic schedules,” and “lack of rest or meal breaks.” Most of us experience these issues.

When the tentative agreement was reached just as we were about to strike, we were all shocked to learn that, in spite of our leaders’ celebratory emails, there were only a few miniscule changes with regards to the human issues. This whole time it was all about getting residuals. Matt Loeb declaring it a “Hollywood ending” was one of the most disheartening and disillusioning things a suffering member could read, because it really proved that he was manipulating us all along.

It’s particularly disheartening that this could happen in a union. We had a rare opportunity to make real change, and it was missed. A Faustian bargain was made. The deal secured residuals to fund the pensions and health care of the relatively few members with cush jobs, whereas the majority of us who are abused freelancers will continue to receive little or no union benefits and continue to experience abusive labor conditions (brutal hours, inadequate rest, etc.).

I believe pandemic unemployment also factored into this; most of my colleagues don’t want to miss any more income opportunities after a rough 2020. And that created additional pressure to give up on the idea of striking.

But ultimately, it was the influence of leadership that led to this outcome. They got exactly what they wanted, which is to say, the greedy streaming giants got exactly what they wanted.

In 3 years when this contract expires, our union is going to have a real reckoning. The union can either become stronger or continue to deteriorate. Matt Loeb will have to actually listen to his membership this time if he wants to get reelected. Though I believe he will be set for a very comfortable retirement at that point.

A veteran colleague said the union “will take anyone’s money at this point.” I think a lot of younger freelancers have high hopes when they join, but they eventually realize that their dues are often more costly than the benefits they receive, if any. Also, LA has a lot of transitory TV/film workers who aren’t in it for the long-run and therefore don’t have the longevity of the union at heart.

My friends ask me what the purpose of my union is, and I tell them that it’s to protect working conditions. However, my union gigs usually have worse conditions than my non-union gigs, and always have worse conditions than any of my friends’ non-union jobs. IATSE is a failure to its members. 

We don’t really have a next step. Many people are leaving TV/film production just to stay sane. Most are kind of trapped, though, because there aren’t many other options that pay as well. Not that we’re getting rich though; the cost of living in LA is exorbitant. The lucky few who’ve saved enough to take a sabbatical or make a career change often do that. The next step is to wait. We each have to manage our own stress levels and try to maintain physical and mental health until the next contract cycle in 3 years from now.

Dawn Victoria Dudley, Los Angeles, California (Hairstylist, IATSE Local 706)

Basically, I’m gutted by the ratification and really don’t see anything ever changing in IATSE. I have participated in this process and tried to be involved to great detriment to my mental and emotional health. I don’t have any more fight. This union is nothing more than a pay-to-play arrangement, and it seems best if I just disengage and treat it as such. Ironically, due to Covid and having to step away from working due to my inability to just keep “toughing it out” for the majority of the last 18 months, I am now in a race against the clock for hours by January 22 to keep my health insurance. I don’t think I’m going to make it, so I’ll lose that too. I have never felt more isolated, alone, and resigned to a life half-lived, if that. Doesn’t seem like anything I say or do matters anyway.

Corruption rules IATSE. I don’t know exactly what all goes on, as is by design, but it is systemic from top to bottom. The last general meeting of my Local was an absolute dumpster fire full of outright lies from leadership right there on the Zoom screen for all to see and hear. Shame and embarrassment doesn’t even begin to cover it. I had to turn it off out of basic self-preservation. All I can handle now is to show up, shut up, get paid, and go home. Maybe that will change, but I’m not holding my breath.

Loeb and his cronies have to GO, and we need term limits. And this delegate system is a disaster. Members should have the right to vote for our international president directly. And this electoral college system of voting for the ratification is just as problematic as it is in our federal government.

My circle is very small, both coworkers and friends, so we are mostly equally disheartened and angry. And some are hopeful that things can change and want to stay engaged and fight, and others, like me, feel that it is insurmountable, and we just have to walk away for our own sanity. 

Honestly I’m just consumed by my rage right now, which I know is unproductive and unhealthy. Even now, I tell myself I have to walk away, and then another wave of anger hits and I get sucked back in. My mind just churns and I can’t see a way forward.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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