IATSE Vote Leaves Bitter Taste: ‘It’s Inevitable That New Leadership Is Going to Happen’

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees approved its Basic Agreement on Monday, ending the most protracted and contentious bargaining process in the recent history of the TV and film production union.

But the ratification — which passed even though a bare majority of members voted against it — leaves a lot of hard feelings toward the union’s leadership.

Many have directed their anger at Matthew Loeb, IATSE’s international president. Loeb is based in New York, and many in Los Angeles say he did not grasp the members’ hunger for more wholesale change in production schedules.

“He is out of touch with the membership,” said Amy Duddleston, editor of “Mare of Easttown” and a board member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild. “I have never seen him at an IATSE town hall.”

But Loeb, who has served as president for 13 years, was just re-elected without opposition at the union’s convention in July. So some are focusing instead on elections for local officers, many of which are set for next spring.

IATSE Local 80, which represents grips, voted against ratification by a 2-to-1 margin. There is already talk within the local of trying to unseat Thom Davis, an ally of Loeb’s who has served as business representative since 1998.

“I think that’s where this has to go,” said Colin Angle, a member of the local. “There was already discontent in Local 80 before this contract. It’s inevitable that new leadership is going to happen.”

Loeb and Davis did not respond to requests for interviews.

Some are also pushing for an audit of the vote or a change in the delegate voting procedure, which allowed the Basic Agreement to be ratified even though most members voted no.

The Basic Agreement was ratified by a vote of delegates from 13 local unions based in Los Angeles, while the companion Area Standards Agreement was ratified by delegates from another 23 locals around the country. The Area Standards Agreement was ratified thanks to a four-vote margin in New Mexico, while the Basic Agreement was approved with just 270 votes to spare at the MPEG. In the “popular vote,” the ASA membership supported the contract 52% to 48%, but the Basic Agreement members voted against it by a tally of 50.4% to 49.6%.

The international union has not released a breakdown of the delegate vote, even to its own members. Instead, the local unions have provided their own totals — in an inconsistent fashion — just to their own members. That has bred some mistrust of the outcome.

“It’s frustrating how it’s like pulling teeth to get information,” said Brandy Tannahill, a grip in Local 80 who helped organize opposition to the contract. “It’s like being patted on the head and told, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”

The contract includes some gains for workers — and no givebacks — making its near defeat all the more striking. The deal provides a 54-hour weekend rest period as well as increased penalties for going longer than eight hours without a lunch break. It also raises wages for the lowest paid workers in the union, including writers assistants and script coordinators.

But opponents argued that it did not do anything to shorten workdays that can run 14 hours or longer, which was their main issue. Some say the next step should be a culture change that goes production by production.

“It starts at work,” Duddleston said. “You have to advocate for yourself and the people you work with. It’s hard sometimes and you don’t want to be the shit stirrer, but you have to be now.”

In a tight labor market, some productions could find themselves having to compete for workers. Cory Boldroff, another member of Local 80, said that members are already primed to advocate for more humane schedules.

“We’re going to do an immediate, dramatic change across the film industry,” he said. “It’s going to be members saying, ‘No, I am going to stop and get lunch at six hours.’… There’s productions that do 10-hour days and they’re done. They run it like a real business, not like a circus where they’re trying to pound it out as fast as they can.”

Karen Falkner, a set painter and a trustee of Local 729, said she voted for the contract. But she said leadership should listen to the concerns raised by the opponents.

“I think there’s a message there and I think we should pay attention to it,” she said, adding that she hopes the dissidents stay involved. “I would love to see this energy and momentum and interest and participation be channeled into a positive way. Turn that anger into activism.”

There is a silver lining to the disappointment that many members are feeling, said Aaron Hall, an A/V technician and IATSE steward based in the Bay Area.

“A lot of members seem motivated now and understand it’s necessary to keep organizing, and not just dissolve everything and let it go,” said Hall, who recently wrote a comprehensive history of IATSE negotiations. “If they want to be able to have the larger, really transformative changes they want in their work lives and in their union, that’s going to take time and patient, steady organizing.”

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