We are not out of the woods yet.

Just as Hollywood was coping with the early effects of the pandemic, it barely avoided a Writers Guild strike. After a long year of extensive shutdowns, things just seemed to be getting back on track after unions and management hashed out COVID protocols for productions to follow. But now a serious new conflict threatens to shut down production again. IATSE, the union representing crew members across the US and Canada, is seeking strike authorization votes from its Los Angeles locals and its local unions outside of LA.

The underlying agreements expired on July 31 but were extended so that negotiations could continue. Talks broke off on September 20 when the AMPTP presented what it called a “deal-closing comprehensive proposal that meaningfully addresses the IATSE’s key bargaining issues.” The producers’ group faulted the union for having “walked away from a generous comprehensive package.”

The top issue on IATSE’s agenda is working conditions. Crews have complained for years about interrupted meal breaks and 16-20 hour workdays with inadequate rest time in between. Any hope that things might change coming back from the COVID-enforced hiatus proved illusory, prompting the union to seize this moment to push back on this longstanding gripe. IATSE is also looking for increases in scale, especially for the lower-paid job classifications, which may pay only slightly more than California’s $14/hour minimum wage. They are also seeking to eliminate the favorable wage scales for streaming projects compared to broadcast and theatrical.

LA-based crew and those working elsewhere are under separate contracts but both of these are at issue. A nationwide strike would have wide-reaching effects. Unlike a writers strike, producers and platforms will not have the option to substitute unscripted for scripted programming, since union crews work on both. A great deal of animated production also relies on IATSE personnel.  Management and the media have come to expect triennial drama when the three above-the-line guild contracts come up for renegotiation but may have taken below-the-line workers for granted. IATSE hasn’t gone out on strike since 1945. This has been an unusual year, indeed.