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Strong Enough to Strike? How IATSE Can Best Represent Its Members

How IATSE can find our place amongst growing US worker unrest.

on the left, a rainbow IATSE logo (a raised fist inside a black circle), on the right, a photo of Vick Bouzi working in his at-home studio
Photo courtesy of Vick Bouzi.

I’ve been working in sound since 2008. I quit my last part-time job in 2010 and joined IATSE Local 695 (the production sound, video engineering, and projection union) in 2014. When I first started doing this work, I referred to it as my “calling from God.” I felt so natural being on set. For the first time in my life, I felt that I’d found my place in the world to make money. 

So, I was able to dedicate a lot of time and energy into getting my career and small business off the ground. Prior to joining the union, I would make $100 for a 14-hour day working on a movie that a producer would sell for a few hundred thousand dollars, profiting because they kept the bottomline cheap by exploiting labor. I saw joining the union as a way to escape the low-budget world and, frankly, to get paid more. When I became politically activated through the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016, however, I learned more about the history of unions in this country, and realized that labor power is the only way to effectively fight the capitalist class. 

The Bernie campaign led to my interest in organizing, which led me to DSA Long Beach, which led me to Ground Game LA [Ed. note: Ground Game LA is the parent organization of Knock LA], which led me to meet Fatima Iqbal-Zubair and volunteer for her 2020 campaign for State Assembly. I also spent that time organizing protests during the 2020 George Floyd uprisings with Black Lives Matter Long Beach. And the skills I’ve learned through that work have helped me analyze the situation we are currently in — not just with IATSE, but as workers in America. I’ve seen that through one-on-one conversations, regular consensus-building meetings, and continuous outreach, we can effectively connect with each other and solidify our people power as workers.

As workers, we are in a better position than anyone else to understand and articulate how unhappy we are with current conditions. Our demands need to be thought out over many meetings led by passionate union members, and presented to the membership as items to be voted upon. And none of this can take place without an internal phone-banking campaign, just like the one which preceded IATSE’s strike authorization vote. That’s the best model to get a feel for what members actually want. Following that process, we can petition leadership to push for our needs at the bargaining table. 

For instance, the 2020 George Floyd 2020 uprisings forced many institutions to make statements showing solidarity for Black lives. After some pressure from members in 695 who’ve been historically excluded from the union, our leadership put out one such statement. The statement was polarizing, with some members questioning whether 695 was even speaking on these issues, while others, like myself, saw the statement as words devoid of action.

However, leadership’s response is an area where I fully stand with 695. They stepped up — rather than stop at a statement, they went beyond words and actually did something to address the racial disparity in 695. A new committee listened to marginalized folks in our union and adapted an existing program for non-union members to gain experience on set to gear it towards diversity and inclusion. And, in my experience, it is in fact helping promote diversity and inclusion, opening our field up to people who otherwise might not have the “right connections” to get in. I was proud to help organize town hall meetings where issues of systemic racism and exclusion in our industry could be discussed out in the open. It was a safe space for folks to be heard, and there was a better understanding of what it meant when we said “Black Lives Matter.” 

We organized as Black sound mixers and marginalized groups to push our union to make material changes, and this same theory of change can be applied to our contract negotiations. Organizing led by members who are dedicated to the issue could lead to a more solid grasp of what our members really demand. The strike authorization vote was concrete proof IATSE membership wants fundamental change.

IATSE’s current position is that the union reached “the best agreement possible after these many months of negotiations culminating in a resounding strike authorization vote that was the turning point in us achieving what we set out to do.” Which, to me, sounds like an actual strike would have gotten us more. To be fair, there wasn’t an organized push until the strike authorization vote to get direct input from the membership. IATSE says that we gained numerous and significant changes in our contract, and that none of this could have happened without the strike authorization in hand. So, they understand that we were able to secure better working conditions through the strike authorization vote, but apparently don’t acknowledge how, by striking and stopping the means of production, we could have accomplished so much more. 

In March 2020, when the stay-at-home order came down, I was scared. No more in-person shoots meant that the way that I make my living would come to a complete halt. But Governor Gavin Newsom said entertainment industry workers were exempt from the stay-at-home order, and IATSE jobs started coming back. The amount of money companies spent on COVID testing, PPE, nurses, and doctors so that we could get back to work was astronomical. These entertainment companies raised all of their budgets significantly, because the product we create is just that valuable: they were still going to make huge profits, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. This extremely recent history informs us that these companies have ample capital and profits to share with the workers, but they choose not to. Since the COVID pandemic, these companies have made record streaming profits, but our wages have not changed. Theaters closing put a slight dent in the steady five-year profit increase, but tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have invested heavily in streaming as a way to make up for the loss. Producers didn’t even want to give us a 3% raise, but the strike authorization vote got them to give us a tiny bit more. 

If a strike authorization vote got us this much, then an actual strike (by IATSE’s own logic) would gain us even more. This potential strike would truly be historic for all workers, not just members of IATSE. With tens of thousands of workers striking across multiple industries in the US, it’s easy to see the anger out there. An IATSE strike would have added to that momentum.

That said, IATSE has no strike fund, which makes me question if they really were prepared to actually stop the means of production. Striking is the most powerful tool we have, and our union seems unwilling or unable to use it.

When it comes to financial security on a personal level, I don’t believe my union pension will be significant when I retire. I choose not to work 70-hour weeks and take jobs that would keep me on set and away from my friends and family. It’s a catch-22: when you work enough hours for the union pension to benefit you, then you don’t have the time to organize and build power. If you have time to organize and build power, then you’re not accruing pension hours to bolster your retirement fund and secure your future.

I believe it’s the responsibility of union leadership to bridge that gap. I am excited to organize with all the activated workers within the union to understand what their demands are and what they want in the next set of contract negotiations. We need to take this energy and harness it for the next fight against the capitalist class. 

If you’re interested in connecting with Victor P. Bouzi, you may do so here.