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More Hollywood Union Contract Talks Lie Ahead, and Strikes Are Not Off the Table

Just months after WGA and SAG-AFTRA struck big deals on streaming compensation and artificial intelligence protection, several more Hollywood unions are hoping to secure similar concessions — and another strike is not off the table.

On Thursday, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) informed members via the group’s new contract negotiation websites that ahead of talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over its two big agreements — the Hollywood Basic Agreement and the Area Standards Agreement — a strike authorization vote may be held.

“The Negotiating Committee is not interested in extending this agreement beyond the July 31 expiration,” the guild told members. “Depending on the status of negotiations around this time, there will either be a strike authorization vote, or a ratification vote.”

IATSE’s possible strike authorization vote comes as many of its members are getting back to work after a 191-day work stoppage that exhausted the financial reserves of Hollywood’s working class. Multiple IATSE members told TheWrap during and after the strike that they had to dig deep into their savings to get through the strikes, and with studios cutting back on productions and only now starting new shoots, jobs have been slow to return for crew members and set workers.

But IATSE and other below-the-line unions are feeling more confident after the contracts won by the writers and actors guild. “Our Union is going into these negotiations UNITED and from a position of STRENGTH. We will be AGGRESSIVE at the table and do what it takes to win a contract that IATSE members expect, deserve, and ratify,” the union’s site reads.

The industry has yet to return to pre-strike levels, not only because of the labor stoppages but because of business decisions studios made related to their streaming businesses, said Lindsay Dougherty, president of the Teamsters motion picture division and secretary-treasure of Local 399.

“Do not forget: the studios can’t afford to go on a strike either,” Dougherty said. “Nobody wants a strike, but we’re not going to stop fighting for what our union members need…Whether or not we can reach a fair deal without having to resort to a strike comes down to what the studios come to the table with.”

The two big issues that hung over SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, streaming and artificial intelligence, will once again play a big role in the upcoming talks. The American Federation of Musicians and the Animation Guild are seeking changes to their contracts that reflect streaming’s dominance in entertainment. But the changes that AI have made to all of the jobs represented by below-the-line unions are even more immediate than the ones faced by writers and actors.

WGA and SAG-AFTRA were successful in getting the studios to acknowledge the importance of those issues to Hollywood labor and negotiate terms that, at least partially, addressed them. Such a precedent could help the below-the-line unions in the months ahead.

Prior to the start of IATSE’s contract talks, the guild will jointly negotiate alongside Teamsters Local 399 and the Basic Crafts on terms related to the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, after which each of those unions, as well as the IATSE-affiliated Animation Guild, will begin their own separate negotiations with AMPTP over the course of the spring and summer.

Here’s an overview of where the biggest unions stand heading into the upcoming labor talks.

American Federation of Musicians

The AFM has just completed two weeks of talks with the AMPTP. Discussions are now on pause and set to resume on Feb. 21.

Of the unions negotiating this year, the musicians are the ones whose contract goals are the most similar to those of writers and actors: higher pay for work on streaming and protections on consent and compensation for AI.

That doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same. Unlike writers and actors, musicians do not receive any sort of residual for their work on streaming projects, something that the AFM wants to change. The union estimates that 75% of the projects its members compose and record music for are intended for streaming.

AFM President Tino Gagliardi told TheWrap that the union has fought for a fixed streaming residual for many contract cycles, but the increased inter-union organizing around streaming compensation and the gains made on that front in last year’s labor contracts have given the musicians new momentum.

“The solidarity between the unions is higher than I’ve ever seen it,” Gagliardi said. “We marched on the picket lines with WGA and SAG last year and they have returned that support in full during our negotiations.”

AFM is also seeking similar AI protections to what WGA and SAG-AFTRA won last year. Gagliardi, like his SAG-AFTRA counterpart Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, spoke of the importance of “consent and compensation” for musicians when their music is used by AI programs to generate new music for a project. The union is also seeking language that defines music composition and recording as union jobs that must be done by a “live musician.” That’s similar to how WGA secured language in its contract defining writing as a job that can only be designated and credited to a human writer and only allowing the use of AI to aid in writing if consented to by the writer.

IATSE

In 2021, IATSE came the closest it has ever been to staging its first strike, reaching an eleventh-hour deal with the AMPTP that was ratified by the narrowest of margins. Several of the issues that led the union’s members to nearly reject the contract are expected to once again play a central role in 2024.

Foremost on their minds is the issue of long turnarounds. Production crew workers across various locals spoke out against film-shoots that last as long as 14-16 hours, leaving them with barely any time to even drive home and get a full night’s sleep. The 2021 contract secured some provisions on minimum turnaround times for certain kinds of productions like TV shows in their first season, but the majority of productions remained untouched.

Members of IATSE join SAG-AFTRA and WGA on their picket at Netflix, Sunset Gower and Paramount Studios on July 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images)
Members of IATSE join SAG-AFTRA and WGA on their picket at Netflix, Sunset Gower and Paramount Studios on July 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images)

AI also will be a huge factor in IATSE’s negotiations. While the impact of AI on writers is still largely hypothetical and just beginning to have an impact on actors, it is already significantly affecting various below-the-line positions. Film editors, for example, have seen the rise of AI algorithms designed to sift through thousands of hours of footage to piece together trailers and, in the coming years, edit together feature-length films.

Currently, IATSE’s negotiating committee is still finalizing its pattern of demands ahead of negotiations expected to begin sometime in March after negotiations on the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan are completed. IATSE is expected to push for significant increases to minimums and to studio contributions to the health and pension plan, as well as increases in retirement plan accrual rates that will particularly help workers who had to pull funds from those plans to make ends meet during the strike.

IATSE has also done more extensive preparations for this contract cycle, holding more membership meetings among its locals, assigning “contract captains” to serve as liaisons between members and union leadership during the talks, and launching an extensive research and education program to inform members how AI will affect their jobs.

With the strike still fresh on crew workers’ minds, engagement during this contract cycle among the rank-and-file will certainly be higher than in past years, though it remains to be seen whether the contract ratification vote will be as razor-thin as in 2021.

Teamsters

Before the talks even begin, Teamsters 399 and the rest of the Hollywood Basic Crafts have sent a firm message to the AMPTP: They will not extend their current contract past its July 31 expiration date.

Dougherty explained to TheWrap that the move was part of a blanket policy applied by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to all of its locals, but also cited difficulties with applying the previous contract retroactively after talks had to be delayed due to lengthy negotations with IATSE. The Teamsters’ Black Book Agreement was ratified in February 2022, more than six months after the expiration of the previous contract.

Teamsters also will be pushing for a 7% increase in wages in the first year of the next contract to counter the effects of inflation, Dougherty said, and is seeking contract language to protect drivers in the union from having their work taken over by AI powered self-driving cars. The union will also join IATSE in the continued push for increased turnarounds, noting that the late shooting hours that have burned out production workers are also affecting drivers and other Teamsters workers.

“The film industry has worked on long hours for a very long time, but it has gotten to the point where workers are not being compensated for those excessive hours,” she said. “Studios have worked overseas in countries where such hours are not allowed and they find a way to work around it. We are not going to have our jobs be underpaid and replaced just because the studios can’t find a way to shoot their shows with more days on the schedule and less grueling turnarounds.”

Animation Guild

Of the different unions set to negotiate, the Animation Guild (IATSE Local 839) has the most still to do before contract talks begin, as its negotiating committee still has not been selected. It is also unclear whether the talks will begin after the rest of IATSE negotiates its contract or if the guild will wait for Teamsters and Basic Crafts to negotiate as well.

The Animation Guild is coming off of a wave of organizing since its last contract was ratified in 2022. Before and during the strikes, the guild went on a unionization wave, bringing in thousands of animation production workers and remote workers into the fold. The next step will be to work those new union members into the next contract.

IATSE animation bill rally
Car decorated in support of the Animation Guild at a solidarity rally in March 2022

While the union is months away from forming its pattern of demands, insiders say that certain issues that carried over from 2022 will play a role again. Most prominent among them is the tendency of streamers, particularly Netflix, to break up a single order of episodes for an animated series into multiple drops that are sold to viewers as seasons. This allows the streamers to present a “multi-season” animated show without having to give writers and animators the increased pay that comes with actually ordering additional seasons of a show.

And like the other unions, AI will also play a major factor. While AI has already been used on productions like “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” to reduce workload by handling repetitive work like texturing, the Animation Guild is looking to curb the potential use of the technology to eliminate animators entirely from the production process.

The post More Hollywood Union Contract Talks Lie Ahead, and Strikes Are Not Off the Table appeared first on TheWrap.