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Economy & Business

Behind-the-scenes workers in Hollywood avert a strike

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hollywood, film and TV productions around this country are not going to be stopped by a strike, at least not now. A union representing crews reached a tentative deal with major studios and producers over the weekend. And NPR's Mandalit del Barco joins us from Los Angeles. Hey, there, Mandalit.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is all about work conditions and hours and so forth. And there you were, having to work through the weekend to cover the story. But anyway, which workers are we talking about?

DEL BARCO: Well, this is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE. And they represent crew members who work behind the scenes. All those people that you see in the credits of films and TV shows, it's 60,000 cinematographers, editors, makeup artists, lighting techs, costume designers, hairstylists, grips, even the workers who feed the cast and crews. And they've been hoping for a deal. But they were preparing to go on strike. In fact, they voted almost unanimously to strike if necessary. And that would've, effectively, shut down most film and TV production.

INSKEEP: And we had heard that this was partly about the pandemic, people not wanting to go back to the same work routines or even worse routines than they knew from before the pandemic. So what is the deal?

DEL BARCO: Well, the deal that they reached - remember, this is still tentative. And the union members still have to ratify the new contract with - that was negotiated with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

INSKEEP: Right.

DEL BARCO: But it includes giving what they say is a living wage for the lowest paid earners in the union, also improved and retroactive wages, daily and weekend rest periods, as well as what the union now says is significant compensation for work for new media companies. IATSE reports that they've added Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a holiday. And the union says there are new diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Michael Miller is president of IATSE. And last night, he told NPR some of the things that he was most proud of in this deal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL MILLER: The idea that we've improved the working conditions by reestablishing a weekend and making sure that our members have an ample opportunity to rest between shifts.

DEL BARCO: The rest of the deals are not yet public. But union leaders are calling this the great Hollywood ending. But, you know, some workers are not so sure. And they say the deal could have been better. I've seen people on social media expressing frustration. And some are threatening not to vote for this tentative agreement.

INSKEEP: We may not be quite to the Hollywood ending yet. But why were they so close to a strike in the first place?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, many of these workers have complained of having to work really long shifts with few or no breaks or weekend rest periods. They've been sharing their stories on social media, complaining of grueling call times that cause sleep deprivation and very little time to be with their families. Some also say they've been getting paid less than $18 an hour while they live in cities where the cost of living is very, very high. And one more thing - the union was also asking for more compensation for productions that are streamed online and not yet - not released theatrically. They've been working with lower rates since 2009, when the streamers were just beginning.

INSKEEP: What is the broader context for all of this?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, just like other industries, the pandemic really changed the work that these crew members did. And they say producers and studios were able to provide them some protection, in some case a better pay during the pandemic. But that's gone back to the way things have been for years as production ramped up. You know, for now, at least, they'll be back on the job today after preparing not to be. But they still have to vote on this new contract in maybe weeks from now, so stay tuned.

INSKEEP: We'll do that. NPR's Mandalit del Barco in Los Angeles. Thanks so much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "LOST ORBITS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.