Studios and Labor Leaders Hope More Time for IATSE Talks Cuts Risk of Another Strike

Studio negotiators have been talking for nearly a month with the largest union representing Hollywood film crews, and have still not tackled most of the major issues on the table.

The two sides have set an unusually long bargaining schedule, hoping that more talking on minor matters will build good will and lower the risk of another crippling strike this summer.

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In the last couple of weeks, negotiators have chalked up a handful of wins, shaking on six tentative agreements with local IATSE unions. But the heavy lifting is still more than a month away, with the issues that could lead to a strike not likely to be dealt with before June.

The contract between the studios and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees is due to expire on July 31, along with the contracts for Teamsters Local 399 and the other “Basic Crafts” unions, including plumbers, electrical workers, and plasterers.

If those unions go on strike, it would again shut down an industry that has barely started to recover from the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA strikes that shuttered TV and film production for six months in 2023.

Sorely in need of a return to labor peace, negotiators have decided to take it slow. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has set aside five weeks for “local negotiations” with each of the 13 IATSE locals on the West Coast.

So far, the studios have reached tentative deals with the locals that represent sound technicians, camera operators and cinematographers, hair and makeup artists, grips, art directors and set painters. Talks with editors were expected to conclude this week, but have been extended twice — from three days to a total of five.

“We made significant progress, but there were still several complicated proposals that require a great deal of consideration,” said Cathy Repola, executive director of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, in a message to members on Thursday. “Our committee decided it is in the best interest of our membership that we not rush through the process.”

Those agreements cover the “local” contracts, which address extremely specific issues relevant to each craft. The film editors’ contract, for example, specifies that editors will be given a separate title card in the credits of feature films and long-form TV programs, and will get the option to include “A.C.E.” after their name if they prefer.

The story analyst agreement provides a 20% premium for reading scripts in a foreign language. The agreement for painters makes clear that the use of aerosol paint is covered by the contract.

Some of the local issues up for consideration this year include staffing levels, safety concerns, and how advances in technology change job classifications.

Because of the pandemic, the AMPTP did not bargain with the IATSE locals individually in 2021, and instead folded some of those concerns into the general talks on the Basic Agreement. The 2021 talks nearly resulted in a strike, and the membership came very close to rejecting the agreement during the ratification vote.

Neither IATSE nor the AMPTP wants to repeat that experience. The top IATSE leadership has sought to allow greater input from its members at the front end, and asked for more time to discuss local concerns during bargaining — especially given that most of those issues have not been fully addressed since 2018.

The AMPTP has also done something it has never done before, setting up simultaneous negotiations at IATSE and AMPTP headquarters to allow for additional bargaining time.

Though the situations are not exactly analogous, the inability to talk to more than one guild at a time may have been a factor in prolonging the strikes last year.

Once the West Coast local negotiations conclude — currently set for April 26 — the talks will move on to the Area Standards Agreement, which covers two dozen IATSE locals around the country, including places like Louisiana, Georgia and New Mexico.

Once those negotiations conclude, only then will talks turn to the Basic Agreement, where the major sources of conflict lie. By that point, the studios will have spent far more time at the table with IATSE than they spent with either the WGA or SAG-AFTRA before those unions went on strike last year.

The Basic Agreement negotiations are expected to focus on issues like artificial intelligence, wage increases to keep pace with inflation, and working hours. The two sides also have to fill a massive shortfall in the pension and health plans, with the union seeking a streaming residual that would supplement employer contributions.

A common saying in labor negotiations is that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Even so, both sides hope that incremental deals along the way will ease a path to an overall settlement.

“Everyone seems very focused on getting a deal done,” said one source.

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