IATSE recently announced that an estimated 5,000 production workers for television commercials will now join the ranks of the largest below-the-line union in the industry. This unionization of commercial production departments represents a watershed moment for the industry. It’s certain to have a major impact on how TV commercials are made in the future.
In this post, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about the production department and IATSE. We’ll catch you up on the story so far and show you how the big news might affect your next shoot.
The road to unionization for production workers was not short. Rumors of production labor organization floated around for years. Efforts finally began in earnest with the founding of Stand with Production in 2021.
Stand with Production is a grassroots group dedicated to the advancement of workers’ rights in the commercial production industry. Their activities thus far specifically focus on unrepresented workers within the production department. These include production supervisors, assistant production supervisors, line producers, bidding producers, and production assistants among others.
Stand with Production got its unofficial start when production crew members walked off the set of a commercial in protest of working conditions. Receiving widespread support in the aftermath, the group began organizing digital “town halls” to discuss the state of production labor on commercials.
These town halls ultimately led the group to propose a new set of labor standards and pursue unionization with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Known as “the union behind entertainment,” IATSE represents more than 150,000 artisans, technicians, and craftspeople who operate behind-the-scenes in entertainment.
The group cleared their first serious hurdle in October 2022 when IATSE reached a neutrality agreement with the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP). The agreement offered commercial production department workers the opportunity to vote for IATSE representation by signing union authorization cards.
Essentially, this agreement allowed IATSE to attempt to officially unionize commercial production crew workers.
As of July 25, 2023, those union authorization cards have been collected and counted. A certified majority of eligible workers signed and have officially won voluntary recognition of their union status by the AICP. Now an estimated 5,000 commercial production department workers are set to join the IATSE rank and file.
The voluntary recognition of commercial production workers is a success story for collaboration between entertainment industry stakeholders. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, here’s how AICP president and CEO Matt Miller described the news:
“We entered a democratic process where we gave employees and the union the opportunity to demonstrate that a majority of people actually wanted to be represented by the union. They did demonstrate it and now we will meet with the union to try to find an equitable arrangement that works for both us and them.”
In the coming months, freshly unionized production department crew members will form a new IATSE local to organize their crafts. This represents a seismic shift in the commercial production ecosystem and will significantly alter how the best commercials are made. Let’s explore those changes and how they’ll affect your next commercial production.
IATSE now has the power to negotiate a labor contract with the AICP on the workers’ behalf. Previously, there was no contract. Sometime soon, there will be. This is a sea change for commercial production departments.
Terms in the upcoming contract will place a set of standards and regulations on the employment of commercial production department workers. These workers have never before enjoyed collective bargaining rights.
Aside from state and federal labor laws that mandate items like overtime and minimum wage, any standard or regulation that concerns commercial production department workers will be unprecedented.
We can’t be certain about the precise impact of production workers’ unionization until IATSE and the AICP settle on the group’s first labor contract. However, we do have some strong ideas about topics IATSE will probably look to negotiate on and best practices that it will look to codify.
Throughout its campaign for union representation, Stand with Production has worked to highlight several areas in which production workers would like practical protections. In addition, IATSE’s long history of collective bargaining gives us an idea of their own priorities and strategies.
Once a formal contract is in place, rest assured that Wrapbook will provide in-depth analysis and explanation.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of the biggest issues IATSE is likely to bring to the table.
Wages are the topline item for most union contract negotiations in the entertainment industry. Details of the DGA rate card, SAG-AFTRA rate card, and other union rate cards are the first concern for a typical member every time a new contract is negotiated. It’s the issue that most directly affects any crew member’s livelihood and well-being.
Guaranteed minimum pay rates for production workers will offer protection against budget austerity measures. Because commercial production workers formerly lacked representation, their day rates have historically been a target for cost-cutting. By negotiating guaranteed minimums, IATSE will effectively set limits within which that practice will continue to be feasible.
In terms of real-world impact, commercial production companies may end up paying their production department more on average. However, there is a silver lining. Established minimums will simplify certain financial tasks, like building a budget or filling out the AICP bid form.
The prevalence of unpaid overtime is a notoriously sticky issue for commercial production department workers on non-union shoots. Production is very often the first department to arrive on set and the last to leave.
Many production crew members continue their jobs even away from set via their phones or laptops. The result is a set of working conditions in which boundaries are not always clear and work hours are not always accurately counted. Production workers’ overtime pay is sometimes trimmed in favor of the budget’s overall health.
IATSE representation ensures that overtime pay will be more strictly regulated. This may drive average payroll costs up slightly or create time boundaries for your shoot. IATSE hopes that it will also create a more conscientious environment for production workers’ time spent on the job.
For many of the reasons listed above, turnaround time has historically been a huge issue for production department crew members. If the production department represents the first crew members to arrive on set and the last to leave, basic math dictates that they will experience less time off the job compared to other crew members.
Less time off the job means less time to rest. On a multi-day shoot, the resulting hours and fatigue can add up fast. A lack of sleep has been known to cause car accidents and other unfortunate events that risk the health of affected crew members.
The establishment of minimum turnaround times and rest periods is a protective measure. The changes will mandate a specific length of time between a crew member’s wrap time and the next day’s call time, ensuring that production department workers receive adequate rest.
The impact of this change will likely be felt most heavily in scheduling norms for commercial shoots. Productions will have to build a schedule that accommodates turnaround regulations and maintains greater flexibility in modifying call times for individual crew members.
Commercial production department workers are not currently eligible for employment-based retirement or healthcare benefits. These are costs that each production crew member instead must initiate and manage entirely on their own.
Retirement and healthcare benefits are an established component of IATSE labor contracts representing other crafts. These services are administered by the IATSE National Benefit Funds and the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plans. Employers contribute to them as percentages of a union crew member’s paycheck and/or a negotiated contribution per hour worked or guaranteed similar to the way they handle payroll taxes.
The cost of retirement and healthcare benefits will be absorbed into the same regulations dictating wage minimums. Outside of the budget, their practical impact should be minimal, particularly if you use a payroll solution like Wrapbook to help ensure union compliance.
Without union affiliation, commercial production department workers previously belonged to no centralized organization. They had no one from whom they could seek standardized training on safety or other professional concerns. IATSE will likely seek to rectify that deficiency as it organizes a new local on those workers’ behalf.
At this point, it’s unclear what any potential training initiatives will look like or how they’ll impact commercial productions. However, funding for any program or initiative will likely draw from the IATSE Training Trust Fund (TTF) and the Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF).
Some IATSE locals have TTF and/or CSATF contributions built into their collective bargaining agreements, but - critically - not all of them.
As with retirement and healthcare benefits, the inclusion of IATTF and CSATF contributions in IATSE’s future contract with the AICP could modify guaranteed wage minimums.
However, if there is no such inclusion, the establishment of new training options for production department workers will likely have no effect on a commercial production’s budget or schedule.
The organization of commercial production department workers within IATSE comes in the midst of intense labor action throughout the entertainment industry, including parallel strikes by SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. Tangible effects of the successful unionization will become clear when IATSE and the AICP sign the group’s first collective bargaining agreement.
To follow this and other events that might affect your next shoot, keep an eye on the Wrapbook Blog. We feature critical coverage and in-depth analysis that you find elsewhere, like this insider’s guide to labor relations.
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