The largest union representing Hollywood's technical workers has begun contract negotiations with the major studios amid concerns that rising healthcare costs could lead to cuts in health and pension benefits for below-the-line crew members.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees -- which represents more than 100,000 entertainment industry workers, including cinematographers, set decorators and prop masters -- on Wednesday began negotiating a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The current contract expires July 31.
Teamsters Local 399, which represents more than 3,000 drivers , will also take part in the talks as part of a new bargaining alliance with IATSE.
The parties have set aside four weeks of talks, first to hash out agreements with more than a dozen crafts locals that belong to IATSE, then to negotiate the so-called Hollywood Basic Agreement that covers issues affecting all the locals, including health and pension benefits. The latter is expected to dominate the agenda.
Like many other unions, IATSE and the Teamsters face a large deficit in their health and pension plans -- projected to be at least $300 million over the next three years -- because of rising medical costs. The health and pension plans are funded by residual payments and employer contributions.
How to close that gap will be a major focus of the negotiations -- as it was for contract talks with talent unions that received increases in employer contributions to their plans. Union leaders could agree to raise eligibility requirements as they did in back in 2009 -- when they raised to 400 from 300 the mininum number of hours required to work over a six-month period. That change, however, sparked a backlash among some IATSE members.
Union leaders from IATSE and Teamsters have been prepping their members for months that they could be forced to accept some tough changes to their health and pension benefits. "Costs of care and insurance coverage have been going up at an alarming rate for the last decade or more,'' Leo Reed, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 399, said in a message to members posted on the union's website.
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Matt Loeb, head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, at the union's office on Riverside Drive in Studio City on June 21, 2011. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times.