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Hollywood Production Crews May Strike Due To Unglamorously Low Wages And Long Hours

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This week, one of the main unions in the entertainment industry announced they'd be calling on their members to authorize a strike after contract negotiations with some of Hollywood's biggest production companies stalled. This comes as film and TV production has ramped up following last year's COVID lockdowns, along with what workers call unstable conditions. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our Planet Money podcast reports.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When 27-year-old Ben Gottlieb got back to work as a lighting technician on TV and film sets last fall, he was relieved. Production had been shut for around six months due to COVID.

BEN GOTTLIEB: Which was a very stressful time. I was on unemployment. I was living with my parents.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But by this summer, Gottlieb says the grueling schedule that had defined his pre-pandemic working life had come back even worse.

GOTTLIEB: My longest day on that job was 19.5 hours.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Gottlieb is one of the tens of thousands of behind-the-scenes unionized crew members - including costumers, prop-makers and others - who make up the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE. A few months ago, the union was in the early stages of negotiating a new contract with the industry group that represents many Hollywood studios and streaming juggernauts, like Netflix and Amazon. That's when Gottlieb decided to post about his frustrations on Instagram. And to his surprise, within a few weeks, the post had opened up a floodgate of similar stories.

GOTTLIEB: I found that a lot of people were sort of using my inbox as a place to vent about their frustrations with the industry.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So Gottlieb created an Instagram account called I-A Stories to act as a kind of anonymous public forum. Since then, the page has drawn over 99,000 followers and hundreds of anecdotes. Many of them describe struggles with low wages, excessive hours, little sleep and less and less time off for lunch breaks and weekends.

GOTTLIEB: All to meet these deadlines to get content out as quickly as possible because there was about six months where no content was being created.

JONAS LOEB: It's really led workers to a breaking point. I mean, reports are coming in all over the place that conditions have deteriorated.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Jonas Loeb is the communications director for the union. He says many of the issues raised on I-A Stories describe long-standing problems in the film industry, but that the broader post-COVID reckoning happening in the U.S. labor market has created an opportunity to push for substantive change. The union is also pushing for changes to pension and health funds and to the way crew members are paid for their work on streaming productions. To create some pressure, union leadership decided to call for a vote to authorize a strike.

LOEB: Frankly, it's time. It's time to get it right and do the right thing.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the Hollywood industry group, declined to speak with us for this story, but they pointed out in a written statement that the industry is still recovering from COVID. They also argued that they already offered the union a plan for better wages, longer rest periods and more funding of pension and health plans. IATSE's Jonas Loeb says the union begs to differ, but he's hopeful that the threat of a strike authorization vote will sway the alliance of producers before it even happens.

LOEB: We are still looking to make a deal. You know, nobody is bent on striking. You know, nobody wants to withhold their labor in order to be treated like a human being.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And if anyone is worried that a possible strike could lead to a temporary interruption to the supply of fresh, bingeable content, Loeb suggests that's a price the studios currently seem willing to risk.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD CAVE SONG, "LOVE COMES CLOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.