(Bloomberg) -- Josh Hancher left the set of the Kevin Hart comedy “Night School” after 4 a.m. on a Saturday and headed straight to one of his son’s Boy Scout events.
It wasn’t the first time the Atlanta-area camera crew member had been forced to choose between sleep and his duties as a dad after a late-night shoot.
“Thankfully, I haven’t hurt myself,” said Hancher, 46. “But it’s not healthy and not safe at all.”
Which is why Hancher is ready to potentially join thousands of art directors, camera operators and editors on a strike beginning at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time Monday in a fight with Hollywood studios over work conditions and pay.
With the deadline looming, the two sides are still negotiating to avert what would be the first nationwide strike in the 128-year history of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
A work stoppage would mark the second crippling shutdown of film and TV production in the past year and a half. Hollywood is still recovering from Covid-related halts and health restrictions: In fact many of today’s gripes over work conditions -- like nonexistent breaks and long production shifts -- are the result of wearying schedules imposed on workers by studios trying catch up after last year’s delays.
The studios -- represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers or AMPTP -- are trying to add thousands of hours of new content as they compete for streaming subscribers. And the country is facing major labor shortages.
On Oct. 13, the AMPTP said it “will continue to negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach an agreement for a new contract that will keep the industry working.” The group represents major studios including Walt Disney Co., Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.
The contract tensions are part of a broader trend of stressed employees voicing their concerns through work stoppages involving businesses from Deere & Co. tractors to Kellogg Co.’s breakfast cereals.
“There’s a seller’s market in labor,” said Chris Thornberg, founding partner of independent research and consulting firm Beacon Economics LLC. “Every employer better get used to this. People are demanding more.”
Read more: U.S. Labor Unions Are Having a Moment
Many IATSE workers have faced grueling schedules like Hancher’s that have kept them working late into the night or over weekends. In the current round of contract talks, the union has sought higher pay and changes to work rules, including guaranteed break times and more revenue from streaming services that were allowed to pay lower wages and benefits under the old deal. Most of the 60,000 IATSE members are based in Los Angeles and fill behind-the-scenes roles.
The number of Los Angeles shoot days soared in the second quarter to 9,791 from 7,011 in the prior three months, according to FilmLA, which helps facilitate production in the area. That represents half the total from all of 2020, a year gripped by Covid-associated lockdowns. The streets of Los Angeles are abuzz these days with TV shoots from stalwarts like “NCIS,” on CBS, to a new spinoff of the Amazon.com Inc. detective hit “Bosch.”
With the increase in streaming services, there are more miniseries and made-for-TV movies getting made. And that can mean fewer long-running shows, such as a “Seinfeld” or “ER,” that gave workers stability and opportunities for advancement.
“That connectivity of coming back to the same crew and then moving up has been kind of lost,” said Amy Thurlow, a 33-year-old script coordinator and writers’ assistant in Los Angeles. “On top of that, our wages are really low and the work on a first-season show especially is really high.”
Thurlow said it’s not uncommon to clock 80-hour work weeks -- and then encounter employers who challenge some of the overtime that she requested. Hancher, meanwhile, often works more than 60 hours a week.
“I know I can choose not to work those hours,” said Hancher, who was speaking while driving to a set in Savannah, Georgia. “Typically, you take the jobs you’re given because you don’t know when the next one will come in.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, Hancher said, pointing to his experience on “Irresistible,” a movie directed by Jon Stewart.
“We worked 10 to 11 hour days and got proper rest,” he said. “You remember when you have those jobs that you love what you do.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.