Amid Fatalities and New Contracts, IATSE Members Search for a Set Safety Culture Change

The sun had just set over Burbank on a Friday night, and a group of some 40 Hollywood union members, most from IATSE, gathered in the parking lot of IATSE Local 80’s headquarters with plastic cups and electronic candles. They came to commemorate the lives of union colleagues who have died on film and TV sets across the country in the past year.

Among those memorialized at the event last month was Juan “Spike” Wu Osorio, a lighting technician and active member of IATSE Local 728, who died this past February when he fell from a perm — the wooden beams above soundstages — during production of Marvel Studios’ “Wonder Man” at the Radford Studio Center in Studio City. As the vigil began, Dan Vetanovetz, one of the events’ organizers and a fellow 728 member, discussed how Osorio inspired him with his constant advocacy on behalf of his union.

“He always said he was by the people, of the people, and for the people,” Vetanovetz said. “He was always speaking out for his crew, was deeply involved in 728 and was one of the first people to sign up to be a contract action team lead.”

Other members shared memories of friends they lost ; among the remembered was “Rust” cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was killed by a live round in a gun held by Alec Baldwin in 2021, and “9-1-1” grip Rico Priem, who suffered a heart attack while driving home after working two consecutive 14-hour production shifts and died in the ensuing crash.

“I was working with Rico two nights before he died,” said fellow grip and 30-year industry veteran Nina Moskol. “He was talking about how he had all these well-deserved plans with his wife and his family, how excited he was that he would have been able to assist his nephew into the industry, and how he was super excited to help him raise his grandnephew.”

But, as seen in last year’s strikes, Hollywood has become the public face of the rise in labor militancy across the country, and a call for a widespread culture change in Hollywood around set safety is reaching a fever pitch. Thus what began as a memorial became a rally for labor organizing as the mourning and remembrances shifted to an emotional discussion about what can be done to protect workers from these preventable accidents.

Despite financial gains made in IATSE’s tentative deal with studios, members are searching for tangible ways to bring about long-lasting change that will quite literally save lives — and they say it starts with speaking up.

IATSE memorial gathering (Photo by Jeremy Fuster)
IATSE memorial gathering (Photo by Jeremy Fuster)

“I don’t think we’ve ever had this many members wanting to know what they can do to enact change and be involved in the union,” said Rhianna Shaheen, a member of IATSE Local 871 who organized the vigil with Vetanovetz. “With the way the union is structured with all these locals and different types of jobs, it’s hard to get everyone to move together. But on social media and at meetings like this, people are learning about how common it is to witness a serious injury or death on a set, to suffer injuries or chronic health problems because of our jobs and to fight sleep while driving, and that’s raising the desire to do something about it.”

At the vigil, attendees were asked to raise their hands if they had a near collision driving home from a late-night shoot, and to keep them raised if they’d been injured on a set. Nearly all raised their hands on both questions.

Frustration over inaction was expressed at the gathering, but not just about the vehicular fatalities. Members recounted the death of Sarah Jones, a camera assistant on the 2014 Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider” who was killed by an oncoming train during a shoot on an active railroad trestle in Georgia. Others shared personal stories of near-misses, witnessing fatalities from perm falls similar to the one that killed Spike Osorio — one 728 member said he’s seen seven of those in his career — and various other incidents that don’t catch the public eye.

“With Sarah Jones’ death, you’d assume they had a permit to shoot on that trestle. With the ‘Rust’ shooting, you’d assume that live rounds wouldn’t go into that gun,” said Eva Glow, an independent photojournalist and former production assistant, of the studios’ response to complaints over set safety. “Sometimes these deaths happen because of negligence that shows up in a way you wouldn’t even think about.”

Brent’s Rule

At the vigil, several IATSE members wore a shirt with the slogan “Give Us A Rest” and the IATSE logo with a bloodshot eye at its center. The logo and its corresponding movement began during contract negotiations in 2021, as members pushed for longer mandatory rest periods between shoot days.

The union’s push for more rest goes back decades. In 1997, Hollywood was rocked by the death of Brent Hershman, the second assistant cameraman on Gary Ross’ fantasy drama “Pleasantville.” The week of his death, Hershman and the “Pleasantville” crew had four consecutive days of 15-hour shoots, followed by a Friday that lasted a grueling 19 hours. Hershman fell asleep while driving home from the set and was killed instantly upon colliding with a telephone pole.

Hershman’s death horrified the industry, including “Pleasantville” cinematographer and future International Cinematographers Guild (ICG) president John Lindley, who helped circulate a petition called “Brent’s Rule” signed by 10,000 union workers across various guilds calling on the film industry to cap shoot days at 14 hours. Among its biggest champions was Haskell Wexler, the Oscar-winning DP of “Days of Heaven,” who was galvanized by Hershman’s death to become a champion for shorter shoot day hours.

“Talk to any decent person and they say, ‘Of course, it’s insane that we are working this way,’” Wexler told the Los Angeles Times in 1998, “but some faceless people in some business accounting office sitting in front of a computer say, ‘If we squeeze two days of work into this week we will save a certain amount of money.’ That rule falls on the heads of directors and it falls on the heads of production managers.”

It is not a money issue. It’s a priority issue.”

Eva Glow, independent photojournalist and former production assistant

The outrage over Hershman’s death never coalesced into meaningful changes in IATSE’s labor contracts. Wexler released a documentary on the issue, “Who Needs Sleep?,” that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and examined how the momentum behind “Brent’s Rule” dissipated. He asked Lindley in the documentary what happened to the petitions, and he said they “disappeared into a black hole” after they were sent to the ICG.

“I asked to have them back so I could make my own mailing list, and they said I couldn’t have them,” Lindley said.

Wexler continued to be an advocate for shorter shoot days until his death in 2015. A year prior to that, Gary Joe Tuck, a Teamster driver and crew member on the Netflix show “Longmire,” died after falling asleep behind the wheel after an 18-hour shoot. The production offered charter buses for crew members to and from the set after the crash.

Contract talks and “Fraturdays”

Efforts to make safety and rest periods a priority in recent contract talks have led to incremental progress. In the 2021 Hollywood Basic Agreement, IATSE was able to negotiate a required 10-hour rest period between weekdays for all shoots along with a 54-hour rest period on weekends.

But several grassroots organizers say those gains did not go far enough, as producers and studios have simply accounted for the financial penalties of infringing on those rest periods in the budget. The 54-hour rest period has also done little to curb the practice of “Fraturdays,” which is the industry term for Friday shoots that extend into the early hours of Saturday morning.

Four days after the vigil, IATSE announced it had reached a tentative deal on the Hollywood Basic Agreement. While the full contract is still forthcoming at the time of writing, one gain touted by the union is new rules requiring workers to receive double their hourly rate for any work done after the 12th hour of a shoot day and triple their hourly rate for any work done after the 15th hour. On-call workers are also guaranteed double pay after their seventh consecutive work day.

While that may help IATSE workers earn extra wages at a time when thousands have burned through their savings due to last year’s double strikes (and employment remains below pre-strike baselines in Los Angeles), it’s unclear whether requiring higher pay for shoots that go late into the night will change the status quo of consecutive 14-hour shoot days punctuated by a 15+ hour Fraturday.

“I’m sure a lot members will be grateful for the extra pay, but that’s not my focus,” said one IATSE 728 member who asked to remain anonymous because the full details of the contract were not released yet. “I’ll work for two grand a week if it means being able to come home to my family and my dogs and my kids being able to see me more often because I’m no longer coming home on weeknights long after they’re in bed.”

Other provisions include requirements that the contact information for the person on the production who is responsible for coordinating lodging for on-location shoots and rides to sets must be included on the call sheet. IATSE is also extending a California pilot program that mandates a dedicated safety officer be present on major studio productions to all union shoots in Georgia and New York.

What’s next?

But for IATSE members at the vigil, changes can’t just come from a dedicated safety officer. It must come from themselves. Eva Glow noted how the attendees who knew Spike Osorio all talked about how he was a constant voice for safety on whatever productions he worked on, and said it took courage to do that in an industry culture that values the grind.

As a production assistant, Glow recalled having her own near-misses with potential accidents on sets and working late nights. But reading other union members’ stories of being overworked and exploited on sets put her own experiences in context.

“I would be so proud to say I didn’t sleep or that I squeezed in a post-shoot workout at 2 a.m.,” she said. “But then I would read these stories from these grips and these tough guys that carry all this gear and get exhausted and can’t be there for their families, and they’ve been holding that in because there isn’t that culture to speak out.”

Maggie Anne Goll, a Local 44 member and grassroots organizer with the Caucus of Rank-and-File Entertainment Workers (CREW), said that early in her career as an effects worker — a male-dominated craft — she was laughed at when she wore her hard hat and asked for her respirator.

That experience made her determined to always find out what her fellow crew members, especially the lowest ranking ones, needed in order to feel safe working on scenes with effects. She believes workers are afraid to speak out at times for fear of being seen as complicating a shoot, which in turn could make them less likely to be employed for future productions.

“If they have a question, I will find the answer if I don’t know it,” Goll said. “If they need something, I will take them to the AD or the producer to make sure they get it. On every production, on every project, there needs to be the proper responsibility being kept at every level, making it granular, and to change the culture where you are.”

Goll says she feels optimistic about the long-term potential of crew workers’ ability to push for change because of the organizing work done over the last four years.

“The beginnings of a cultural shift is happening throughout IATSE that recognizes that members aren’t going to accept the same excuses any longer when we make demands to address working conditions that are increasingly unsafe, unsustainable, and inhumane,” she said.

“I also know that member communication and collaboration between the locals is growing in strength by leaps and bounds — and that is an example of true solidarity when we, the rank-and-file IATSE members, all join together to make the same demands.”

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