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Commercial Production Workers Are Unionizing

The workers who make commercials are some of the only non-unionized members on set. But not for long.

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Video produced and edited by Libby Rainey and Nes Sanchez

Commercial production workers are unionizing with IATSE to combat the nightmarish conditions they face — heat exhaustion, abuse, 16+ hour days w/ no overtime pay. For decades, these workers have been some of the only non-union workers on set. That’s about to change.

Cheyenne Cage: I would say that I probably worked on average between 90 to a hundred hours within a week.

Chris Valdez: You have to 25 hours straight, 36 hours straight.

Kit Garchow: You’ve been up for 20 hours and then you have 4 hours maybe till the next shoot. 

Cheyenne: When I accept a job, I accept that I am leasing my body out to the job.

Kit: Once you accept the job that is your life, you don’t have autonomy in this industry. 

Cheyenne: If you have a family, you don’t have a family for the period of time that you’re on that job.

Kit: On top of that, we aren’t paid for additional hours. So the longer you work, the less money you make.

For decades, commercial production workers have been some of the only non-union workers on set. They’re organizing with IATSE to change that

Kit: Commercial production workers have been sort of overlooked in the industry for a long time. Many of us don’t have health care. Many of us don’t have a pension plan. 

Chris: We are one third of the production business out there

Kit: many of us don’t have health care. Many of us don’t have a pension plan

Cheyenne: We don’t get overtime. We don’t get a chance for 6th and 7th day or holiday pay, anything like that.

Kit: We haven’t been included in any of these sorts of movements in the past, or have been unionized. Now is the time that that’s going to change

Production workers are unionizing for life-saving safety protections

Kit: I’m unionizing with IATSE because of an experience I had on a shoot. We were told that the shoot would be in the middle of the desert and that we had less than 24 hours to figure out how to make that happen. Most of the crew that we had had was pretty exhausted at that point. It was 115 degrees in the shade.

Kit: There was three hospitalizations, and then six other people were sent home due to heat exhaustion. I didn’t have any training. I was put into that position and then sort of forced to deal with the consequences of that. This job is so dangerous if proper precautions aren’t taken.

Cheyenne: We walked out on a Sunday, and that Thursday was actually the incident that occurred on Rust, where Halyna Hutchins was killed. When you’re running on such little sleep and experiencing the type of burnout and fatigue that you do, working these long hours, your ability to make decisions in regards to people’s safety and well-being is compromised.

Kit: One of my nightmare jobs, we were, you know, hours outside of LA  and we were not allowed to book hotels or places for people to stay. There were numerous times where I found myself drifting on the road and nodding off, and I had to stop several times just to make sure that I didn’t drive off a cliff. 

Chris: There was a job that I ended up leaving before it went completely haywire. The person who replaced me ended up getting into a horrible accident, T-boned by a truck outside in the desert road after working, you know, 16+ hours. And this is for a commercial.

Kit: No one’s family shouldn’t have to deal with that for making a commercial that people skip through

Cheyenne: because we don’t have union representation there are no boundaries to push back on what they can ask of the production team and the clients are, of course, going to try and cut costs at any given moment. 

Commercial production workers walked off a job in the fall to protest inhumane working conditions

Cheyenne: We had each worked almost 200 hours in two weeks and that was working through the weekends with no rest or breaks. We were definitely getting somewhere between four and six hours of sleep every night

Erin Wile: No one was really paying attention to my red flags that I was flying. It’s a lot of like, what we’ll you got to suffer through this together.

Cheyenne: We were reaching out to the contacts at the production company and ringing the alarm about the conditions being, you know, what we felt was abusive.

Erin: I thought it could be quite powerful if maybe we didn’t show up the next day

Cheyenne: I definitely did not expect it to have the impact that it would have. Within a matter of days nationwide, we were getting calls and emails and texts from people who work in commercial production, who we don’t know, just thanking us. A community was immediately formed.

Kit: Over 2000 petition signatures. It felt like people were, for the first time, really waking up to the abuses that everyone else had experienced.

Commercial production workers are also fighting for a pay raise

Cheyenne: I’ve always been told that the reason we don’t get over time is because it would be so much money that we’d be getting paid and the budgets couldn’t possibly handle that. A lot of these union jobs, the clients are billion dollar corporations.

Chris: With inflation and the cost of living our rates should be so much higher than they currently are. They have not moved for over 20 years. 

Cheyenne: Our union counterparts in this industry do get annual inflation increases and all of that so they’re able to provide for their families. And this is something that the production department workers don’t have because we don’t have someone advocating for us. 

Production workers want more to join their cause.

Kit: We want to create a sustainable industry. Right now it’s, it’s just not sustainable in any way shape or form.

Chris: It’s pushed me, it’s pushed a lot of people to a brink. We are fighting for people to have a life, for people to be able to spend time with their families.

Cheyenne: We can enact tangible change if we stay together and work together. 

Kit: This is a movement for everyone. 

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