When was the last time you watched the end credits of a movie or TV show on Netflix?
Don't think too hard: It's a bit of a trick question, because Netflix swiftly skips to the next episode or minimizes the scroll of names to hawk its recommendations. That makes it easy to forget just how many people it takes to make television — from the cinematographers to the hairstylists to the costume designers to the script supervisors to the grips.
Hollywood would grind to a halt without these below-the-line employees. And the way things are shaping up, it soon might: The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is poised to vote this Friday to authorize around 60,000 workers to strike. It might be tempting to ignore these employees' demands like we ignore their credits, but their strike is indelibly linked to how we consume entertainment today. There's a real human cost to the instant gratification we get from streaming services — and anyone who subscribes to Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, or Disney+ ought to be paying close attention to what happens next.
If the IATSE votes to strike, it will be the first major Hollywood strike since the writers' walkout 14 years ago and the first crew strike since World War II. The union has tried to secure a new three-year contract since its previous contract expired this past summer. But in addition to fighting for higher base pay, harsher penalties for skipped meals and breaks, and shorter overall hours, the question of streaming projects has become a significant sticking point in the union's negotiations. That's because "back in 2009, IATSE and TV/film studios saw the future of streaming services — AKA 'New Media' — as uncertain," The Hustle explains, with the union conceding "'greater flexibility' when it came to employment terms and conditions."
Companies still use that leeway. For example, Apple recently claimed that because its streaming service, Apple TV+, has fewer than 20 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada, it can pay crews lower rates than other, more popular streamers.
But as the union compellingly argues, "New Media is now just Media" — after all, Netflix, Amazon, AT&T (the conglomerate that ultimately owns HBO Max), Disney, and Apple are companies valued in the billions and trillions, earning numerous Emmy and Oscar nominations and awards. Needless to say, these giants should no longer be given the preferential treatment of a startup. Additionally, the production schedules required to keep up with customers' booming demand for new seasons and shows has lead to nightmarish stories about 20-hour days and inhumane work conditions. "On more than one film, crew members or department heads have been seriously injured or died, and we broke for five minutes to announce it and then continue on," one witness told Variety.
The next step for IATSE is the strike authorization vote on Oct. 1, with results expected Oct. 4. While the voting mechanism is a little complicated, it seems there's a good chance the strike will be approved: "In the past when there's been talks about a strike, there was a lot of debate online between members about whether to do it," a member of IATSE Local 700, which represents editors, told The Wrap. "This year, I'd say about 99 percent of the talks I've been a part of support a strike authorization." Added Joe Martinez, a special effects specialist in IATSE Local 44, to Variety, "I believe that the laws of probability now are in favor of a strike. They're going to have to taste this medicine."
Notably, the affirmative authorization of a strike doesn't mean it will necessarily go forward, but it does give IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb the power to call for one if negotiations continue to sour. If that happens, an industry only just getting back on its feet after the pandemic will effectively shut down again.
"Local 600, the largest of the locals, represents 9,600 camera operators and cinematographers in the U.S.," Variety explains. "If they walk out, no one would be able to hold a camera on a set in the U.S. Likewise, post-production nationwide would come to a grinding halt without the 8,600 editors represented by Local 700." Those 60,000 union members affected by the contract negotiations could walk out nationally. How long would they strike? It's unclear — but the 2007-2008 writers' strike left many shows with shortened or postponed seasons, and in 1945, the Conference of Studio Unions' strike lasted six months and culminated in a riot.
It's doubtful that's where we're headed. In all likelihood, television and movie fans waiting for the next project by their favorite actors and directors won't notice anything amiss. But that doesn't mean the plight of the below-the-line employees should be ignored. The copious amounts of content available for us to watch at the drop of a hat exists thanks to these workers. Thousands and thousands of them are putting in 14-plus-hour days, missing meals and breaks, and receiving tragically little pay so we can have an endless stream of shows. We're already involved in their working conditions, whether we realize or not.
So even if the strike doesn't go forward, perhaps the mere threat of it will be a lesson: Our thoughtless entertainment has a cost for people whose names we can't even be bothered to read before the next episode begins.