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Opulence and Exploitation: Why You Should Be Paying Attention to the New IATSE/AMPTP Union Deal

Let’s play a game. What industry am I thinking of? In 2015, it contributed 100 billion dollars to the United States GDP. In 2019, it was estimated to have comprised 3% of the USA’s annual trade surplus within the service industry. In 2021, it created 2.5 million jobs and generated 188 billion dollars in wages. And in October 2021, it nearly skidded to a halt as it faced threats of a union action the magnitude of which it had not seen since the Second World War. Is it Oil? Big Tech? The industry that brought us the Kardashians? If you guessed the latter, you’d be correct! So, what caused such an uproar within the industry that’s kept so many of us sane over the past two years?

There are two key players in this story. First is Union, which threatened strike action in October 2021. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (or IATSE) is a trade union which represents what are referred to as “below the line” workers. These are the people who make Hollywood run – it’s your editors, your camera operators, your technicians, and so on. Without these people there are no movies, TV shows, or news programs. On the other side of the isle is The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (or AMPTP) which is a group comprised of almost all major studios in Hollywood. Think Disney, Netflix, Warner Brothers, etc.

This past July, the contract between these two organisations had come to its natural expiration date, and with it came the opening up of negotiations between the two groups regarding work conditions. On the table were fundamental worker rights demands: pay raises, shorter working weeks, and guaranteed meal breaks. However, after five months of no agreement, IATSE voted to go on strike effective October 18 unless AMPTP would meet their stipulations. It was a tense few weeks as the industry questioned whether it could survive the shuttering of doors which would come from a strike of that magnitude. Thankfully, the two groups managed to come to a deal, and on November 15 IATSE members voted to ratify the new contract with AMPTP, seemingly putting to rest the threat of worker mobilisation.

But these are just the background details. What really was on the table these past few months for the industry was indicative of a much darker level of exploitation and abuse. The new contract only passed by a slight margin, and many vocal members of the Union continue to argue that the contract fails to address the issues facing below the line workers on film sets every day.

Under the new terms, these workers can still be subject to 75 hour working weeks, they will only see a slight pay raise which will take years to go into effect, and many argue there are no adequate safe-guards to stop companies from continuing to deny their workers meal breaks on what often become 14+ hour shoot days. Stories of the worker rights violations are being told en-masse across social media, namely on the IATSE Stories Instagram, where union members have been sharing their experiences of being overworked, underpaid, and undervalued for careers that for some have spanned decades.

As we as a society begin to shift our relationship with goods and worker rights, it is imperative the film industry is not left behind. We have asked ourselves whether the convenience of next-day Amazon delivery is worth the exploitation of their factory workers. We have asked ourselves whether our desire for cheap garments is worth the childhood of a minor working in sweatshops in the global south. Now is our time to ask whether our desire for a constant flow of media and entertainment is worth the exploitation of the people who make that content possible. We cannot discuss the ethical implications of Jeff Bezos’ factory workers being on food stamps without also discussing the implications of motion picture workers living paycheck to paycheck whilst studio execs pocket millions. We cannot discuss the inhumane hours interns on Wall Street are expected to work without recognising the deaths of below the line workers from sleep deprivation in Hollywood. These are not tinsel-town issues. These are not the stories of the rich and famous. These are worker rights violations. 

Worker rights are worker rights no matter what industry. As we enter award season and see celebrities fill our social media feeds with thousand dollar suits and million dollar award shows, we cannot forget the exploited workers on which this culture is founded. The IATSE strike is more than a film industry issue – it is endemic of a larger cultural uprising amongst workers to demand an equal share of the honey pot. It is not a question of standing with IATSE – that should be obligatory – it is a question of what we as consumers can do to support our fellow workers in this shift, of not crossing the picket lines, and of making clear that a quick turnaround on TV shows is not more important to us than the health and well-being of human lives behind the screens. 

If you wish to support film workers you can check out a list of ways members of the public can aid in this fight on the IATSE website.

I am a fourth year philosophy student at the University of St Andrews. Besides angrily debating at parties whether or not triangles exist, I enjoy watching movies, cooking too much pasta, and getting lost in local bookstores.
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