Crew and production workers are the hidden victims of the Hollywood strikes




The IATSE Headquarters on West 25th Street, Manhattan, New York. Photo Courtesy of IATSE.

The economic plight of non-striking crew and production workers is an unintended consequence of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG-AFTRA) strikes. Although the WGA strike came to a conclusion with a deal on Sept. 26, the ramifications of the months-long industrial action are still widespread. 

“When it comes to what the media talks about, the two unions (SAG-Aftra and the WGA) get most of the attention, but that isn’t the end of it,” said Keith Fennelly, a former set designer based in New York. “People are hurt. This is a huge industry and although the situation right now is not completely unprecedented, even if production comes to a halt, that doesn’t mean our life has come to a halt.” 

Fennelly, like many other film and TV crew and production workers, is a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, or IATSE based on West 25th Street. Although IATSE currently has a “no strike policy”, stopping its members from striking alongside SAG-Aftra and the WGA, most of its members resonate with the writers and actors’ situation.The theatrical union itself recently averted a strike after coming to a tentative agreement with The Broadway League in December 2022. 

“The consequences on crew and production workers are particularly severe as the strikes are industry wide,” said Jamie Horwitz, a media consultant who works with labor unions during major strikes and worked with IATSE in 2021 when it threatened a walkout. “Whether IATSE members support the strike or not, the ongoing negotiations is not directly their fight and the real aim is to get their job back.” 

Still, IATSE members working in the Film and TV industry are severely affected. The problem is particularly acute for New York-based members who are faced with the city’s high costs of living. 

While striking and unemployed actors and writers can apply for New York State unemployment benefits with access to multiple relief funds, for IATSE members access to financial assistance is sparse. Some members have been able to access emergency assistance through funds like The Entertainment Community Fund (formerly the Actors Fund) that helps stifled industry workers in conjunction with actors. But most members do not qualify for unemployment due to being individual contractors—many now living off savings or relying on temporary gigs in service and retail.

“The funding amount available from the union’s donations to charities doesn’t do much to cover rent and other living expenses in New York City,” said Rodney Lofton, a costume designer and New York based IATSE member now working at Saks Fifth Avenue. “I have been running around trying to find funding sources myself while coming back to retail for money. I never thought I’d be a sales rep again. I really loved my job.” 

Keith Fennelly, a member of Local 829, who now designs exhibits at a Connecticut planetarium instead of designing film sets, despite having found alternative work, is also struggling.

“Even with the job I currently have, I’m making around 25% of what I would be making in production. I’m two months behind in rent and I have to choose which bills I’m going to pay on time,” said Fennelly. 

By August this year IATSE had allocated $4 million over 2 allotments in total, to support members affected by the production halts, according to IATSE Communications Director Jonas Loeb. 

“A good deal for the writers and actors is good for the IATSE membership and everyone working in the industry,” stated Loeb. “We are trying to be as supportive as possible, that is why we gave out a second donation, but we are in the same boat as our members in terms of the information we get from the studios and are waiting for things to return to normal.”

But with over 15,000 members just in the New York tri-state area, and the union divided into multiple autonomously run locals representing different production sectors, it is difficult for all struggling members to gain access to timely emergency funds. 

Although there are seven IATSE Locals based in Midtown Manhattan, there are a few thousand people just in one local. To make the most of this arrangement and ensure those severely affected across all the locals are tended to, such as members on the verge of losing health insurance, IATSE donated to charities that have a wider reach instead of distributing funds itself. 

In the United States, IATSE has donated to the The Entertainment Community Fund and the Music Performance Trust Fund, according to Loeb. 

This funding, however, is emergency assistance that is quickly depleted, not wide-reaching relative to the number of financially struggling members and in any case is unable to cover the full living costs of any member. As a result, while Lofton and Fennelly have been able to gain temporary employment to keep afloat financially, many IATSE members have had to dig deeper into their savings.

Anthony Pepe, a veteran make-up artist who has been working in the industry for 25 years, and is the breadwinner for his family of four, has been living off savings since his TV production stopped in early May. An individual contractor, Pepe does not qualify for unemployment but is fortunate to have enough to go on at the moment, hoping both strikes end in a favorable agreement soon. 

“We’re the casualty of this situation,” said Pepe. “While the strikes and the talks between the producers and the unions go on, the damage is already being done.”