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“We Need to Take Back Our Union”: An IATSE Worker on Organizing for Change

A retired member of IATSE Local 80 describes the transformative process of organizing for union democracy in the wake of a disappointing contract fight.

Left Voice

November 23, 2021
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(AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

After a long negotiation process and an overwhelmingly positive strike authorization vote, the 13 West Coast Locals of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) voted to ratify a contract that many rank-and-file members found disappointing and insufficient. The tentative agreement, which failed to provide more than ten hours of turnaround time between shifts, reasonable breaks, or future funding for workers’ pensions, was turned down by a popular vote, but was still approved through IATSE’s electoral college-style ratification process. In an interview with Left Voice, Cory, a semi-retired grip and member of IATSE Local 80, describes the transformative process of organizing inter-local town halls with other rank-and-file IATSE workers, and beginning the process of organizing for union democracy. 

***

I’m mostly retired from the industry where I worked for 17 years. I did commercials, I did movies, I did TV, I did every type of classification. I worked on the gang, which is like being the grunts of the whole industry. I worked on construction, I worked on set, I worked in rigging. Then I got a neck injury. Kaiser called me two days after my MRI and said, “Dude, you need to have emergency surgery, you’re going to be paralyzed.” And it was by the grace of God that the injury didn’t actually cut my spinal cord. 

It was an injury caused by time and pressure. I’m a small guy, five-foot-eight, so doing the hard manual labor of rigging without rest and constantly working through injuries just broke my body. I had a huge neck surgery that left me where I couldn’t lift more than 50 pounds of weight. I can never grip again, I can never go snowboarding again, I can’t give my kids a piggyback ride. I can’t even rough-house with my kids again without risking becoming paralyzed. During my recovery from the surgery, I couldn’t get enough hours to keep my insurance and I couldn’t make a paycheck. So I said, OK, I have to go back to real estate, which I haven’t done since I was 21.

This contract ratification was definitely a gut punch. We knew we had an uphill battle, but we really thought that we were going to turn down the first tentative agreement. It’s just that this was the first proposed contract, so we should’ve sent it back and said, “Hey, let’s keep going. Contracts get voted down all the time.” We could have done better than that proposal. And we just saw, in the John Deere strike, where workers voted down their first contract and got a better one. Anyone that knows anything about negotiations knows that no one ever proposes their best contract first.

From the beginning of the negotiating process, our business representatives (BAs) weren’t listening to us. I can only speak for my Local, but we’ve never even had an outreach committee. We’ve never had a committee that goes up to the members before a contract fight and says, “Hey, what do you think’s important out there? What are the grievances? What are your core issues? What are the abuses you’re putting up with?” We finally got an outreach committee, two years ago. They started working on this process, collecting data, but then COVID hit, which hindered them a little bit. And when they shared the data they collected, our BA said, sorry, we’re not going to listen to you this time, but we’ll listen to you next time. 
Then when negotiations picked up last spring and summer, the BAs started sending us memos about how hard they were fighting for us. One of them was dated October 13th, and it basically said, “the union will continue bargaining with the producers this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement that addresses core issues such as reasonable rest periods, meal breaks, and living wages. And we can’t do this without your strike authorization vote. We need you guys to support this.”

Then the tentative agreement came out, and it didn’t address any of the things they told us they were fighting for. And what we got was propaganda from our BAs and our IATSE leadership to vote yes on ratifying it. We constantly got text messages and emails saying something like, “You have to vote yes to be in solidarity with your brothers and sisters. If you vote no, we’re going to go into immediate strike. And last time we had a strike, people killed themselves. Do you want their deaths on your hands if you vote? No, we lose everything. We’re going to get the worst contract ever. So you better vote yes because this is the best contract you’re ever going to see.“ 

So we said, “Hey, guys, this isn’t good enough. This is not what we wanted.” And they kept playing us off of each other, saying, “maybe you guys don’t want this, but those other locals, they want this, so you’re going to be fighting with them if you turn this down. There’s no point in fighting this.” Or, “You know what? No one wants the same thing, guys. We’d end up with hundreds of demands and we’re not going to know how to stay focused.”

So some of us members hosted our own inter-local town halls, and invited everyone. We knew other people in other Locals wanted to vote no, because loads of people were talking about it on Facebook. So we wanted to see if we all actually wanted different things, like the BAs were telling us. Well, when we did the inter-local town halls, what we realized was there are only 12 basic core issues and 12 demands that could cover everyone’s complaints. We learned we have a lot in common, actually. And we learned a lot more about each other. 

For instance, there’s a position called on-call, for editors. And I used to think, oh, that’s a sweet position, you’re guaranteed to get paid ten hours. Whether you work two hours or eight hours or ten hours, you’re going to be paid for ten. And we were told by IATSE leadership that no one’s ever going to want to get rid of on-call positions, so the contract includes them.

But then some people who have those positions came to our town hall and said, ”Please, guys, if we can eliminate this, we would love to, because what actually happens is we work 12, 14, 16 hours a day. Not only are we not paid for those hours we’re working, those days happen way more than the days that we only work a couple of hours. Our pensions are not put in for more than ten hours, so we’re only getting a little money towards the pensions. And what happens is they abuse us, so they’ll call us at 3:00 in the morning and go, ‘Hey, dude, you need to get up. We’re changing this. You need to edit this real, real quick.’” And they would get no turnaround time between shifts. So they end up working and getting abused.

So for a grip like me, to whom it doesn’t matter if there’s on-call positions or not, after hearing my brothers and sisters talk about their conditions, I said, you know what? I could never vote yes on another contract with on-call. I don’t fucking work for free. I don’t want anyone to work for free, and definitely not a union sibling.

Never, since I’ve been in IATSE, have we had inter-local town halls. Once we held them and listened to our union siblings, we started to realize that it appears the IATSE leadership wants us divided. They want us not to communicate with each other. 

We need to take back our union. A few other workers and I are going to a few government agencies with our complaints about the contents of this contract that we think might be illegal, like not protecting lunch breaks and making people work for hours and hours without rest, and we’re going to file claims to see if there’s something that can be done. We’re also starting to realize that all our union elections are coming up. People are now realizing how important it is to have a BA that really has the member’s best interests at heart. In some of our Locals, our BAs have never even worked a day on set, ever. Some of them don’t even come from our field. Of course, they can’t negotiate for you because they’ve never been on set for 17 hours a day, so they don’t even know what you’re going through. Our Local’s BA has been a BA since 1996, so he’s been in power for twenty six years. And you’re thinking like, wait a second, you’re supposed to be a business representative. You’re making more money than we’re all making and you’re sending guys out there for seventeen dollars an hour and telling them not to complain, and that they should be lucky to have a job. 

We’re going to have another inter-local town hall meeting and say, hey, guys, this is the information we found out about our contract and the upcoming elections, and now it’s going to be up to us. Do we want to file multiple claims to these government agencies to have them come in and say, “is this legal”? Is it legal not to give us lunch breaks? Is it legal to make us work 17 hours a day with eight-hour, ten-hour turnarounds where people are dying at the wheel on the way home? Is it legal to make us work on studio lots that aren’t OSHA safe? And then we’re also going to talk about, how do we take back our unions? How do we change our constitutional bylaws? How do we make sure that we can keep our elected officials in check? And how do we make sure all of our BAs, our elected officials, aren’t cronies of the IATSE President? Do we need to have some kind of term limits? Like, “Hey, you’re a great BA, you can be a BA’s assistant, but you can’t stay in power for twenty six years as the BA, no matter how good you are, because that will lead to corruption.”

It’s those kinds of things that we’re going to change. Over the next three to six months, we’re going to be pretty proud to be a part of this union, because change is going to happen and there’s no way to stop it.

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