A few years ago, longtime prop master Charli Jayson was pulled over for driving erratically. The cop made him get out of his car and do a roadside sobriety test: Walk a straight line and touch your nose. But Jayson hadn’t been drinking. He had just worked a 15-hour day on a production set and tried to drive home, despite being exhausted.
“That happens to people all the time,” Jayson said.
Better schedules and more time to rest at night and on weekends are just some of the changes the entertainment industry workers are fighting for. Their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts (IATSE), is leading the fight, though the latest round of contract negotiations failed.
This weekend, IATSE will vote on whether to authorize a strike, with the potential to mobilize thousands of TV and film crew members and stop ongoing productions. A “yes” vote on strike authorization may not immediately lead to a strike, but it gives the IATSE president, Matthew D. Loeb, the power to call a strike if he deems it necessary.
IATSE Local Chapter 871 Vice President Marisa Shipley doesn’t believe crew members are asking for too much.
“It’s really basic things, at the core, that members are asking for,” Shipley said. “It feels a little ridiculous we’re talking about meal breaks in 2021, which seems like a basic human need. And I think that the fact that they’re such basic asks is part of the reason members are really standing strong. We’ve hit a breaking point and we need change.”
Months-long negotiations between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and IATSE failed to produce an agreement. IATSE announced Sept. 20 that AMPTP does not intend to make any counter-offers to their proposals. Their next step is the strike-authorization vote.
Shipley is now fighting alongside her colleagues for better schedules, wages, proper pay for streamed content and benefits as part of the industry contract negotiations.
IATSE members and other TV and film crew have been sharing horror stories publicly for the last two months on an IATSE Stories Instagram page (@ia_stories). The page drew more than 1,100 posts and almost 130,000 followers. The anonymous posts describe working 80-90 hour weeks for months on end, without meal breaks, without enough rest at night or on the weekends, all for unlivable wages and seeing declines in mental health.
The working conditions many crew members face, all in the pursuit of “making it,” have been a known secret in Los Angeles. Shipley believes they worsened when productions resumed after the pandemic.
“There is this pressure and pinch to just produce as much as they can, as quickly as possible,” Shipley said. “And the thing that really gets pinched are the human crew members behind that work who are being asked to work weekends and long days, week after week after week.”
Jayson said he and his crew consistently work 14 hours a day, almost double the average American employees’ work day, not including time to commute in traffic-heavy Los Angeles.
“Even a short day for us is a 12-hour day,” Jayson said.
Shipley said crew members often don’t even have time to think about their working conditions, much less realize they’ve reached the crisis point.
“It feels like the whole industry is gaslighting you,” Shipley said. “So as an individual, it feels like, ‘Is it just me? Can I not handle this?’”
She credits social media for helping members share their collective experiences. “Social media has allowed crew the space to talk honestly and openly about the conditions for the first time,” Shipley said. “Once the door was open, the stories flooded out. The public conversation has made a lot of us realize, or at least brought to the forefront, that it’s not just me. It’s the system.”
Jayson said everyone in the industry knew about the troubling conditions but social media pages, like the IATSE Stories page, spread the word to the rest of the world.
“It’s spawning a larger conversation about the industry,” Jayson said. “It also shifts the focus. When people think about TV and movies, they think, ‘Well, Tom Cruise makes $20-million dollars a movie so how bad could it be?’ But that’s not who we are.”
Script coordinator, union member and USC alumna Jamie Tunkel said it’s often difficult to go to doctor’s appointments, dates or enjoy free time because the industry expects her to stay plugged into her work.
“The anxiety comes from never being able to unplug, never being able to be away from my email or my concerns if something is needed at work is incredibly intense,” Tunkel said. “Just because that’s what’s been expected of us doesn’t mean that it’s OK or that it’s how things should be done moving forward.”
Like Tunkel, Shipley hopes authorizing a strike may pave the way for union members to do what they love without sacrificing a work-life balance or a livable wage.
“It’s just all so exhausting,” Shipley said. “It really does feel, I think for many of us, that this has got to change or we’re out.”
The IATSE strike-authorization vote is expected to happen Oct. 1 - 3.