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“No Job Is Worth Losing Your Life For”: IATSE Members Barry Lee Moe, Kirsten Coleman & Kathleen Felix-Hager On Why The Time To Strike Is Now

·8-min read

In his first year working in film and TV, hair department head Barry Lee Moe (IATSE Local 706) had an experience that forever changed his perspective on the industry.

After driving to set one morning on an early call, he came to learn that there had been an accident. “One of our truck drivers just didn’t make it because he fell asleep driving this huge, semi-trailer truck while he was en route to base camp and crashed … and unfortunately did not survive,” the two-time Emmy winner recalled.

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With budgets to manage and deadlines to meet, producers then carried on shooting, he says, “as if nothing had ever happened.”

“That’s when, very early on, I realized that there’s potential for danger in this industry,” Moe continues, “in terms of how they view us and support us, as employees and people.”

As the creative behind Pose and more notes, this unfortunately is “not a unique story” but rather something that “happens all the time.”

Kirsten Coleman (Local 706), a makeup artist who earned her first Emmy for her work on HBO’s Euphoria, knows this as well as anyone, admitting that she has nearly fallen asleep at the wheel “too many times to count.” She found her safety in jeopardy due to standard industry practices, while being routinely overworked and underpaid and contending with severe sexual harassment in her workplace.

Because of how prevalent long hours and tough working conditions have become for crews, there has been a groundswell of support for a potential strike by IATSE — the first in the union’s history — if a deal with the Hollywood studios is not reached by end of this weekend.

Among myriad issues being raised in IATSE’s negotiations with the AMPTP, the importance of reforming working hours—to the extent that maintaining one’s physical and mental health is a possibility—has emerged as the galvanizing one that all union members have gotten behind.

“Even in the short time I’ve been in this industry, we’ve seen so many people lose their lives, their sanity, their health because of these jobs,” says Moe, who found himself working up to 21 hours a day in the midst of the Covid pandemic. “And it doesn’t matter what job you’re doing in this world — no job is worth losing your life for.”

For Coleman, hours on set often have been so long that she’s barely had time to rest. “I’m lucky if I get five or six hours of sleep a night,” she says, “and that’s just driving home and going straight to bed, with maybe a shower.”

Then, there’s Hacks costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager (Local 892), a 25-year veteran of the industry who notes that abuses of time carry over on set, to the extent that people are not even afforded real breaks to eat or use the bathroom. “It’s really crazy because the thing is that people that work on films and television, generally, we all really love what we do, and we all are very conscientious, hardworking people,” she says. “You don’t come in there half-assed; you’re giving it your all. So, to have such disregard for basic human dignities, I think people are really fed up.”

Plenty of evidence supporting that notion can be found on IATSE Stories, an Instagram account set up in August that gives members an opportunity to speak anonymously about their experiences. The account, which has amassed 156k followers, thus far has published 1,188 — mostly harrowing — accounts, speaking to “labor exploitation” and “wage theft,” burnout from unsustainable turnaround times, sexual harassment, horrific car crashes following long hours on set and other incidences of compromised safety, and the need to carry around a “pee cup” in the absence of permitted bathroom breaks.

Certain stories are particularly demonstrative of what Felix-Hager calls “a callous attitude” toward workers, with crew members forced to return to set shortly after giving birth or in the midst of a major illness — if they want to keep their jobs.

“Everything I have read on @ia_stories has been a complete and utter recap on nearly every job I have worked in the course of my 15-year career,” notes Coleman. “In fact, I can recall experiencing about 90% of each story I have read.”

The creatives Deadline spoke with also agree with the anonymous posters on the core issue at hand — that being what one referred to as “the systemic ability of the industry to abstract people’s lives into numbers on a spreadsheet.”

Each views the powers that be — namely, studio heads and producers at the corporate level — as those that need to be held accountable.

“I’m not angry at the producers of the show that I’m working on. They’re lovely people, and they treat the crew very well, but when you’re negotiating with an entity that’s a corporate attorney for shareholders, they don’t care about the crew. There’s no connection to it,” says Felix-Hager. “They don’t have any direct empathy for the people that are being affected. It’s just a bottom-line number, it seems. So they really have a lack of empathy, I think, for what people are experiencing.”

Adds Moe: “I think the core issue that exists at the heart of all of this is profit over people. That extends to profit over people within a space where you’re exploiting the very people you hire to help you make your projects.”

Moe, Felix-Hager and Coleman attribute the powerful sense of solidarity among IATSE members right now to a confluence of factors, including the pandemic, which served as a major wake-up call. “Having all that time with your family, even though it was a crazy circumstance, it sort of shifted people’s priorities in a way that was really profound,” says Felix-Hager. “I feel like the issues on the table now are heightened because people have gotten a taste of, ‘Oh yeah, I remember what it’s like to see my kids and to spend time with my husband or see my parents.’”

Another factor is what Felix-Hager refers to as the “insane, voracious rate” at which entertainment content is consumed these days, which has driven the industry to try to generate as much as it can, as fast as it can. The costume designer notes that already-severe hours on set recently have gotten even worse, for precisely this reason.

As Coleman pointed out, there has never been a higher demand for content than during the pandemic — particularly at the beginning of lockdown, with people confined to their homes. She said that when production resumed, following this initial stage of the pandemic, “many safety precautions were taken and also promised including shorter days and more breaks,” though these were not offered “for long [if at all].” In the end, she feels that IATSE members’ “excitement and eagerness” for work during the pandemic was taken advantage of by networks and studios, who realized they could “pump out content faster, without regard for our safety, exhaustion and how it has affected our lives in all arenas.”

The makeup artist compares her work life to “an abusive relationship” resulting in “Stockholm syndrome” she has just recently woken up from, after 15 years of labor.

The artists Deadline spoke with recognize that a strike would hurt some more than others, should it drag on for an extended period. Still, they view a strike as a necessary and worthy sacrifice in pursuit of a better, healthier industry of the future.

“In my experience, in order to make change, sometimes you need to just get in the muck and burn it all down in order to rebuild something worth working for,” says Coleman. “And to be honest, I think some people may be excited for a forced break, and a cause to fight for.”

Adds Moe: “I would say that the overall energy and vibe on set these days is hopeful and it’s strong. People aren’t freaking out in any way. I think they’re more so excited about being part of a movement that will better all of our lives.”

The ultimate goal of this movement is to establish some kind of sustainability. Because really, what alternative is there?

“For someone like me, who’s only in my 40s, I’m likely going to be working for another 30 years in this industry. I mean, that’s almost half my life left working,” says Moe. “To continue in these conditions, I won’t make it. I won’t make it, physically or emotionally, because it’s just too taxing.”

Adds Coleman: “If this doesn’t happen now, we would go down a very dark path, and I don’t think the AMPTP understands that they will lose their content, and the quality there, when they work us to death. People will leave this industry, and there will be no more experts to apprentice the next generation of filmmakers moving forward. As I see it, it could be the end of true filmmaking.”

What Felix-Hager wants the AMPTP to think about is the fact that peoples’ lives have more value than any work they might do, or the money they might be able to make someone — and that “people really, at the end of the day, just want to be acknowledged.”

“And I think that happy crews work so hard, you know?,” she adds. “I mean, a delicious lunch and a nice sit-down and a decent wage — people are thrilled. It’s not like you’re asking for the moon. You’re asking to be treated like a human being that has dignity and worth.”

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