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An Air of Solidarity

Chris Lose • LD at LargeNovember 2021 • November 2, 2021

Illustration by John Sauer – johnsauer.com

At the time of writing, there was a very real possibility IATSE would go on strike against the AMPTP, halting almost all film and television production across North America. [Thankfully, IATSE and AMPTP came to an agreement Oct. 16 —ed.] This would have been a historic move, and frankly a necessary one. Certain previously niche industries were trying to overwork their labor force under the pretense that they are struggling to make a profit. Streaming services felt they deserve a discount on labor because they are still participating in an unknown business model. Our brothers and sisters were demanding adequate time for rest, a fair cut from the growth in online streaming, an increase to wages, and improved funding for health and pension plans. Even though the strike didn’t happen, this is a good time to reflect on why we should all stand in solidarity with our local crews. I happen to be a nonunion freelancer, but I am willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with unions and I will tell you why.

Unions Raise Wages for Both Union and Nonunion Workers

We all benefit from transparent minimum base salaries. The mere fact that we know the average lighting technician salary in West Hollywood, CA is $44,118 in 2021 is thanks to union labor transparency. Obviously, salaries can vary based on location, education, certifications, and experience, but we have a ballpark figure. This knowledge gives us the tools necessary to negotiate for every penny that we can earn. I will be the first to begrudgingly admit that I love my job. I would happily take part in some shows for much less than my clients are willing to pay. It’s because I love shiny things. Without an objective evaluation of what my labor is worth, I could easily fall prey to an employer who wants to pay me less than fair market value. In the right situation, a producer could trick me into working for beer and some VIP passes for my family. If this were allowed to continue, I’d still be living at home and eating leftover pizzas from catering. Unions are equipped with professional negotiators. These are the type of people who can negotiate in ways that I am incapable of. Union representatives often have the power to raise wages by knowing how far a budget can be stretched. When union wages rise, employers come to value that position at a certain level even when they are in a nonunion house. I have benefitted from their efforts without even joining the team.

Collective Bargaining

The power of collective bargaining cannot be overstated. Union representatives can negotiate for higher wages because they represent so many individuals. They only take up one seat at the table, but they carry the weight of thousands. Unions represent the collective will of the laborers, not the managers. As an individual freelancer, if I were to walk off the job because I think a 30-hour day is unreasonable for the riggers, I could be replaced. Nothing would ever change. The production could carry on with its status quo and find an equally qualified person desperate enough to work in unsafe conditions. But if the entire rigging team went to lunch and didn’t come back, the production would be forced to reflect on their choices and engage in meaningful dialogue. These conversations often lead to progressive change. This is how past luxuries like overtime pay, eight-hour turnarounds, hotel rooms and meal penalties have become commonplace. I have never had to negotiate for overtime because unions have already done the hard work for me. I have these luxuries because people who were more determined than myself have fought for what is right. Unions have taken the time to pave the pathways to an equitable workplace.

Health and Safety Standards

Speaking of unsafe work environments, we are responsible for our own safety and those around us. Unions are willing to take the time and effort to ensure that our needs are met. Herbert Abrams, University of Arizona professor, said it best in the concluding summary to his “Short History of Occupational Health” published in the Journal of Public Health Policy back in 2001. “Labour unrest, protests, strikes, lawsuits, and catastrophes were vital catalysts in obtaining action. Organised labour has been the essential factor central to most workplace health and safety improvements, from the industrial revolution to the present.”

Without going into many of the safety standards that have already been implemented, it’s easier to show the safety standards that unions are currently negotiating. Instead of relying on political oversight, IATSE has hired a trio of epidemiologists to advise the union on best practices for production staff to safely return to work in the era of Covid-19. Forward thinking like this will allow more of our brothers and sisters to get back to work as soon as possible. These proactive decisions will create standards that will apply across the board in the U.S. and Canada, so no production or worker is left to fend for themselves. Individually, I don’t have the resources to hire a professional consultant to help me weed through the barrage of mainstream misinformation. Collectively, unions have the funding to provide independent professional advice for us.

Inclusivity

Entertainment unions have an above average track record of promoting diversity in the hiring pipeline. Unions have even negotiated stronger protections for the LGBTQ community beyond what local and federal law requires. Social advocacy is inextricably tied to workplace advocacy. Despite the hijacking of the slogan by union opposition, “The right to work” is a universally respected human right. This right should never be infringed upon based on sexual orientation, race, pregnancy, or gender. In fact, according to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 23 states, “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”

IATSE has helped ensure safer, fairer, more equitable and accountable workplaces, particularly for women and marginalized people. They have championed many efforts to secure wage parity for women in a predominantly male-centric industry. Unions have also been bold enough to provide representation and advocacy in discrimination cases for union workers. When the union fights these battles, the legal precedence is set for the rest of us to enjoy.

Secured Benefits

Even though unions are most well known for their health benefits, that’s not what I am talking about here. Show biz is unpredictable. Unions provide a level of security for union and nonunion workers in an ever-changing landscape. Nonunion employers are compelled to treat their labor force equal or better than union standards. They know that if they fail to provide a comparable standard of living, their team will stand up and consolidate against any mistreatment. That’s why I thank our unionized brothers and sisters for trailblazing the frontier. This is not to say that union work, or unions, are utopic. Much like all humans, unions have their fallibility. However, our successes can be traced back, in large part, to the men and women who have been attacked on picket lines, stood up in court, walked out of unfair negotiations and advocated for all due dignity. As a nonunion member, if and when the union strikes, I will be proud to show my solidarity.

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