As IATSE Votes on Contract Ratification, Union Members Wrestle with the Lessons of ‘Rust’

The IATSE contract ratification vote has begun and its members are divided.

After Halyna Hutchins was killed on the set of “Rust,” many of the cinematographer’s fellow IATSE members saw the tragedy as a cautionary tale. With allegations that producers put budget ahead of safety and crew that walked off the job in protest of working conditions, members say “Rust” was an obvious disaster in the making, one that might have been prevented with fundamental, industrywide change — the theme of the union’s grassroots movement that saw 98 percent of its voting membership approve strike ratification.

But less than a week before Hutchins’ death, IATSE and the AMPTP struck a deal that fell far short of the transformative vision many members hoped for. The eleventh-hour deal came just hours before IATSE was set to call a strike that would have roiled Hollywood.

Now, 60,000 crafts workers covered by two contracts in Hollywood and across the country begin voting today on whether to ratify the contract. In the nearly six weeks since the strike-authorization vote, they’ve become more divided. The “yes” camp counts the contract as a win: There’s major boosts in pay to some of the lowest-paid crafts and the studios made concessions on turnaround times. On the “no” side — by far the most vocal — angry members point to a 3 percent annual increase to wages and toothless meal penalties.

“I think the push for awareness, the push for unity, that push for a cohesive outcome either way was stronger ahead of the strike authorization vote,” said Neda Davarpanah, a writer’s assistant and member of Local 871. “That was really strong ahead of the previous vote and not so strong ahead of this vote.”

Davarpanah is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Los Angeles chapter and serves on the board of its Hollywood Labor group. She said DSA-LA has not taken a position on the contract, but hosted meetings where members have discussed, debated, and dissected the contract to guide their decisions.

National IATSE president Matthew Loeb calls the contract a “Hollywood ending.” Local leaders are more muted in their praise, While local leadership supports the contract, they also face members’ tough questions during numerous town halls.

As for how Hutchins’ death might impact the outcome, many members say they made up their minds in the days before her death. Those voting “no,” in particular, say the systemic issues that the stage for Hutchins’ death are what inspired them to approve the strike authorization a few weeks earlier. While it’s uncertain if Hutchins’ death made any “yes” voters reconsider their positions, the “Rust” tragedy and the subsequent discussion, activism, and media coverage will certainly be on the minds of the smallest group: those who say they’re still undecided on how to vote.

“I don’t know that it changed many minds. I was against it before,” said another member of Local 871. Her death “is symptomatic of a bigger issue. It’s all about gotta get the shot, gotta make a buck. We the people making these things are just treated like we’re disposable.”

The shared sense that systemic issues plague production work ignited members and delivered Loeb a unified membership. The pandemic production pause gave workers a chance to reflect on their relationship to their jobs, a sentiment that helped attract some 167,000 followers to the IATSE Stories Instagram page where crafts workers share what might have previously been seen as war stories — the long days and unreasonable demands by producers that can lead to exhaustion, injury, or even death.

“We woke up to the fact it’s not really a badge of honor working seven days a week, 15-hour days,” said an editor and Local 700 member. She’s among the many IATSE members who voted yes on the strike authorization, and quickly decided to vote no on the contract after the deal was announced.

Many members viewed the 98 percent approval for strike authorization as a mandate for Loeb to get much more out of the studios, but others say they are pleased with the AMPTP concessions. Under the previous contract, Local 871 — covering writer’s assistants, script coordinators, and others — had some of the industry’s lowest-paid workers. The new contract calls for some of their wages to increase from $16 an hour to $26 an hour over the next three years.

However, that increase is a contractual outlier. Other wages increase only 3 percent a year, far less than the 6.2 percent inflation seen over the last 12 months.

“The employers said we’re going to carve out 871, we’ll give them this raise but nobody else,” one member of the local said. “It’s this divide-and-conquer thing that they do.”

Voting continues through Sunday November 14; IATSE plans to announce results on November 15. The vote is similar to the presidential Electoral College, where each local has a number of delegates in proportion to their size and the majority vote awards delegates on a winner-take-all basis.

The previous contract in 2018 was approved 81-19 and the greatest opposition came from the Editors Guild. While the strike authorization vote earlier this fall saw a 90 percent turnout, the 2018 vote saw turnouts exceed 40 percent in only two locals.

Beyond the November 15 results, members say it’s clear that the fight to rebalance the profit-over-people equation will continue. In another industry, John Deere and the union representing some 10,000 of its striking workers returned to the bargaining table November 11 after the workers rejected a tentative agreement. The workers have been on strike for four weeks and this is the second time workers rejected a proposal.

“We are in a labor movement right now. With IATSE, with workers in other industries striking or threatening to strike, or advocating for themselves collectively — this is a labor movement,” Davarpanah said. “I think that energy will stay active well into the next few years.”

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