Call For Comments: Let’s Talk About Film Unions

fists over a film reel representing film unions

From Monica: When a movie ends, do you stay for the credits? 

Not the cutscene at the end, Marvel. 

But do you actually read the scroll of names that represent the hundreds of people who worked to bring that project to theaters? Or, if you tuned in at home, the nature of television flow means that usually these credits are cut off to keep programming on schedule— slipping seamlessly into the next air slot designed to keep people watching, or squished and sped up in the bottom half of your screen. Streaming platforms give you ten seconds before your next episode binge pops up. By design, the labor that creates our media is presented as invisibly as possible. Perhaps it helps us buy into the narrative more, to forget that sometimes Game of Thrones films in the summer and coats its costumes in candle wax rather than real snow? Because then you might get caught up thinking about the person who spent a full week of twelve hour works day dripping candle wax onto Jon Snow’s coats instead of remembering to worry that “Winter is Coming”. 

Logo of IATSE, one of the largest film unions

Twelve hour work days that don’t include our commutes, or three square meals. Or, if you work in a department like wardrobe, twelve really means “add on two to four” more hours, because technically everyone else works twelve, but you have duties to prep and to fix long before everyone else arrives and after everyone leaves. For most of us, media is our escape; it’s the thing we do after a long workday. But for many, the film industry is their workday. I bring all of this up, because this week the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is dangerously close to its very first industry-wide strike in the union’s history.

IATSE includes 366 local chapters in the US and Canada, and covers more than 150,000 workers in television and film, but also broadcasting, live theatre, trade shows, and concerts. It’s cinematographers, editors, art directors, costume designers, etc etc. It’s everyone, on every show you love. Workers are feeling the especially exacerbated working conditions of an industry aggressively attempting to fill the COVID content gap, as productions prefer to pay union penalties rather than break for lunch or provide the required rest time (as in, time to sleep) in between workdays. This strike also means that these workers, who overwhelming lost their jobs due to COVID, will not be paid. 

So this week I want to talk about the invisible labor of the film industry, but I also want to talk about unions. More specifically, unions that protect essentially freelance gig workers, like film workers. What can we learn from labor history to inform our understanding of this strike? And what can the film industry teach us about the incoming discussions of unionization in the tech industry?    

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