First published in the Oct. 9 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Twelve hours a day, six days a week. That’s the usual work schedule for Joe Martinez, a Burbank resident and special effects coordinator.
His fiancee often points out that Martinez can’t plan any leisure activities, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 44 member said. He often doesn’t know how long he’ll be at work when he arrives there. He misses dinners, birthday parties and his son’s football games — frequently having to settle for text updates he receives while on the job.
“When we’re on a show, that show owns us,” said Martinez, whose credits include “The Mandalorian” and “For All Mankind.”
“That show dictates everything — it dictates what time I get up, it dictates what time I eat, it dictates what time I get home. We don’t know that we’re going to work Saturday until Friday.”
Issues that IATSE says include inadequate pay, long hours and few breaks prompted members last weekend to authorize the union, which represents 60,000 personnel, to authorize a strike after months of contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to result in a new three-year agreement. Martinez and other IATSE members who live in Burbank, home to many studios, say they hope the authorization will push producers to heed their requests.
IATSE members showed overwhelming support for the strike authorization, with the union reporting Monday that nearly 99% of voters agreed to it. Almost 90% of registered eligible voting members across 36 local groups turned out for the vote, the union said in a news release.
Union representatives have said that they don’t want to call for a strike but will if the producers don’t offer a fair deal. Doing so would be its first nationwide strike in the group’s 128-year history.
“I hope that the studios will see and understand the resolve of our members,” IATSE International President Matthew Loeb said in a statement. “The ball is in their court. If they want to avoid a strike, they will return to the bargaining table and make us a reasonable offer.”
IATSE said in late September that negotiations with the AMPTP had stalled, warning that a strike authorization vote would follow. The stage employees’ union has said the AMPTP hasn’t addressed “the most grievous problems in their workplaces,” which the group says include unlivable wages for the lowest-paid workers, failure to provide adequate rest during meal breaks and on weekends, and paying workers on some streaming projects less than their television or movie peers.
AMPTP did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets on Monday, it said that it was committed to crafting a deal, but that “it will require both parties working together in good faith with a willingness to compromise and to explore new solutions to resolve the open issues.”
The two unions resumed negotiations this week after the strike authorization vote, but no agreement had been announced as of Friday.
IATSE members’ experiences often vary greatly according to their roles, but local workers said the near-unanimous “Yes” vote on the strike authorization shows that the group is united in demanding better conditions. Burbank resident Kevin Muldoon, an IATSE Local 695 member who has worked many entertainment award events and sitcoms, said that though the long hours associated with the industry have always been something of a given, the move from film to digital media has allowed producers to record more takes than in previous decades. The result, he explained, is longer shoots.
“You can make this medium a lot smoother than a lot of these people do,” he added, “and they’re taking advantage of the crews by that, because it’s on the back of the crews to pick up their slack.”
Muldoon said that streaming, which was considered a financially uncertain “new medium” in previous contract periods and therefore had lower compensation deals than other projects, has proved profitable, but that wages and other benefits haven’t kept up.
Residual rates — payments from reruns — that help fund members’ pension and health plans are lower compared to those from traditional formats, the union said. With streaming now a behemoth medium of entertainment, IATSE is pushing for those rates to be updated. Chris Rummel, a Burbank resident and editor who belongs to Local 700, said he’s often worried that the union’s pension and health plan will run low.
“I would personally like to be at the point where I don’t have to worry that my health care is not going to be funded in the future, that it might change or something like that,” Rummel added. “It’s a longer-term worry, but it’s something I’d like to put out of my mind.”
Industry professionals, other entertainment labor groups and public officials have expressed strong support for IATSE. And on Sept. 30, about 120 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sent an open letter to the AMPTP, urging it to establish a contract with the behind-the-scenes workers.
Burbank Councilman Konstantine Anthony, a member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union, has also expressed solidarity with IATSE members. On Tuesday, he asked the city manager to prepare a letter urging AMPTP to make a fair deal.
What that deal will be, and when it could come, remains unknown. Local resident Becky Moon, a member of IATSE Local 705, said the prospect of going on strike is “nerve-racking,” but added that the authorization needed to happen to support low-paid workers. She loves her costuming job, she explained, but she wants to see employees paid fairly and given time to rest.
“You talk to anybody on these sets, they’re there because they love it,” Moon said.
Martinez, the special effects coordinator, says he’s optimistic that a deal will be reached. Maybe work will look more like a 9-to-5, he added, and he’ll be able to catch a few of his son’s football games.
“The vote matters. People getting together matters,” Martinez said. “This whole thing isn’t about people just asking for a couple of dollars more. We’re asking for it to change a bit so we actually have a life.”