Amid national union struggle, local film set workers see room for change – Blogtown
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As our favorite movies and televisions bring solace in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the workers responsible for their manufacturing have been busy taking a critical look at the state of their industry.
In recent months, the International Theater Employees Alliance (IATSE), a union representing thousands of team members in a variety of fields, from construction to set doctors, has been part of the recent wave of nationwide union activity fund pushing for better working conditions and pay.
This organization reached its peak when film and television production in the United States nearly shut down early last month, when members were fully prepared for a strike on October 18. An astonishing 98% of all votes cast by unions were in favor of a strike. , which would have been the first of the IATSE in 128 years of history. The strike was averted thanks to a last-minute deal made by executives with the big studios two days earlier. However, it is not clear whether enough IATSE members will vote for the deal in the coming weeks, which means a future strike is still possible.
What is certain is that union membership is more active and engaged than it has been for decades. This includes members of IATSE Local 488, the chapter covering Oregon, Washington, northern Idaho and Montana.
Mae Costello has been a doctor in Oregon for nine years and sees the current union organization as necessary to help move things in a better direction. For Costello, long working hours are a major concern.
“A lot of times on set it’s not uncommon to work 14 to 16 to 17 hours a day and then you do that five days in a row,” she said. “Then at the end of the week you basically work nights from Friday until Saturday.
These hours are common to the entire industry. IATSE members shared horror stories of people falling asleep and sometimes losing their lives coming home from work on grueling days. Since August, these stories have found life on the IATSE Stories Instagram account.
“When bad situations arise and people die, it draws attention to the world of security. This is the only time we need to make changes. It seems that security relies on buckets of blood. “
Portland worker and industry veteran Rachel Lipsey has such a history.
Since 2003, Lipsey has worked in Craft Services, which means providing snacks and hydration for the crew while they work. This job requires her to be one of the first on set and one of the last to leave. Lipsey’s husband also works in the industry, and she once recounted how they both worked long hours on a set in Portland.
“I was driving a five-ton truck home and my husband was driving a van behind me,” Lipsey said. “We would keep our [radios] because we had to talk to each other to make sure we didn’t fall asleep on the way home. We both admitted that at every stop light we closed our eyes. We couldn’t stop.
Lipsey said she still appreciates the bonds she has made with a “family” of co-workers. That silver lining is a common thread in a job where ties come from frequent late evenings, but Lipsey said the dangers of many jobs had grown too great for the people she was close to.
“It was a really dangerous job,” said Lipsey. “We got really close to a bunch of people. We have lost a few people because they have actually lost their minds.
Anne Sellery has worked as a makeup artist and makeup artist for 12 years, first in Seattle and now in Portland. She said the bonds she had formed were born out of a shared struggle and support.
You are kind of a “traumatic connection” through the hours and the long nights, ”Sellery said. “We would do a Friday night, a ‘Friday’, end the week with the sun rising on Saturday morning. Come home, go to bed. Wake up on Sunday, do your laundry, maybe meal plan. Then go straight to bed at eight to get up at five to start over.
Long working hours have been a major concern that echoed across the country, including more recently when workers left for a shoot in New Mexico due to poor working conditions.
During the same shoot, just hours after the workers left, cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was shot and killed by lead actor Alec Baldwin, who was holding a prop pistol he believed he could safely use. Baldwin also shot director Joel Souza, who has since been released from hospital. Investigations into the death of Hutchins are still ongoing.
Acute is one of many movies and TV series shot in Oregon in recent years. ALLYSON RIGGS / HULU
Local IATSE members highlight this incident as another example of the need for better protections. John Pearson-Denning, a Portland-based gunsmith – someone who wields guns and other dangerous props on set – said that “this stuff should be impossible to happen, and yet they did. “.
“I hesitated to point fingers,” added Pearson-Denning, “but all I can say is that it appears no safety protocols or procedures were followed.”
These concerns are shared by Portland-based Rickey Lepinski, who is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) awareness specialist on film sets.
Lepinski said he would prefer proactive measures taken for worker safety, although he fears action will only be taken after something goes wrong.
“We need a lot of work when it comes to workplace safety,” said Lepinski. “This is the sad truth. When bad situations arise and people die, it draws attention to the world of security. This is the only time we need to make changes. It seems that security relies on buckets of blood.
And as more and more streaming sites clamor for content, more and more workers are working as artisans without seeing the benefits.
“Everyone’s looking for the next big thing an aggregator has decided is good,” said Pearson-Denning. “These aggregators are not creators: Netflix and Amazon. They brought nothing but money.
This money is what motivates and fuels much of the rush to have shorter, faster shoots that push the hours to dangerously long lengths.
“It’s an industry that is focused on profit,” said Costello, the plateau medic. “A lot of times productions will try to save money, and if that means they’re putting safety at risk by doing that, that’s something I often see happen.”
“There has been a tremendous membership engagement that we haven’t seen in our local history and across the country. We are looking for how we can capture this.
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Costello, who worked on the Portland show Acute, plans to start nursing school soon, looking for a new career path.
“I’m excited to have a change this way, but I really enjoyed working in the film industry,” she said. “If the hours were better and it was more durable, I would probably stay in it.”
Sam Ross, a local dresser since 2012, sees his colleagues pushing back these conditions amid a larger worker uprising sparked by a pandemic.
“I’m sure a lot of the conversation started with the people who finally got to take a break,” Ross said. “I think people took stock of their personal time and realized that they might be short-sighted as long as they were working as hard as they could for the company they worked for.”
Ross sees the present moment and its future as a potential inflection point in his industry. He can already see the changes on the set he’s currently working on.
“It really opened my eyes, in the sense that it is one of the first productions [where] if we got past ten on a shooting day, I’d be surprised, ”Ross said.
This glimmer of hope that things might start to improve for the workers’ future is at the center of the concerns of cdavid cottrill, the southern trade agent for IATSE Local 488.
“There has been a huge membership engagement that we haven’t seen in our local history and across the country,” Cottrill said. “We are looking at how we can capture this.”
For the IATSE local this means shifting that energy to future contractual arrangements and “building on what we have achieved”.
“We have built alliances of solidarity, not only among other IATSE locals, but also with other labor organizations,” Cottrill said. “We have a very large trade union movement which has not yet reached its peak. It will just continue to build, accelerate and support each other. “