Membership Has Its Privileges: IATSE
A complete guide to getting involved with IATSE, the premier union for artists, technicians and stage employees who set the scene for live shows and film.
Read a Playbill or stick around to the very end of a credit roll, and you will see a five-sided star emblem that denotes that the technicians and artists who worked on the production were members of IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Not all live event and film/TV professionals become members, but most major movies, TV shows, and touring or resident theatrical productions (including concerts and Broadway) employ union members as a matter of strictly enforced contractual obligation. How can you become a member? We’re going to answer some of the tough questions and help you plot your course.
History The American Federation of Labor first chartered IATSE in 1893 as the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Over the years, the title has evolved to better describe the diversity of member crafts represented by the union and to reflect the affiliations IATSE has cultivated with sister guilds. IATSE is the formal shortened name, although in professional circles, it is also known as the IA or International Alliance.
Organization IATSE is geographically divided into leadership districts and further segmented into regional chapters called locals. Each local serves a particular area and may represent only one or more specific trades, like stagehands, wardrobe assistants, or lighting technicians. Local One is the oldest and most recognizable chapter, serving New York and covering members on Broadway, at Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, and the many television shows produced in New York.
Where to Start The IATSE International homepage offers a complete list of locals that is searchable by location, chapter number, and trade type. Your first step toward membership begins with identifying the local that represents your area and includes members in your chosen craft. For example, if you were a theatrical lighting technician living in Orlando, Florida, then you would seek out Local 631. With that information in hand, call or write to the office to request information on specific membership requirements. Each local will have a slightly different set of rules concerning the procedure for acceptance into the union. For now, let’s address some of the common routes to membership.
Getting Your Card You can gain membership in the IA through one of the following methods: invitation, application and vote, or employment. Invitations for automatic membership are granted at the discretion of the local chapter leadership and are generally offered to those with a close relationship to the local or who have made some significant contribution of work to the chapter or affiliated company.
Contact your local chapter and request a membership application to fill out and return with a cover letter and résumé. The general membership votes on these applications at regular assembly meetings. This is not a guaranteed “in” or an easy path. The applicant must demonstrate considerable experience and contribution to his or her craft and typically needs the support of a member who is willing to vouch for the applicant’s skills and talents. A personal interview with the applicant generally precedes voting and may require a written skill evaluation exam and the completion of union training courses.
Apprenticeship includes an exhaustive curriculum designed to train an individual in his or her desired craft and to introduce the apprentice to the processes of the union. Anyone may apply for the apprentice program, which typically includes a written aptitude test. The exam does not assess skill level but rather determines the likelihood of success both within the local union and the career field. Those who enter the program will receive hands-on training in their chosen crafts, as well as formal courses in workplace etiquette, union history, and safety. Training time varies, but apprenticeship can require a commitment of 18 months or more before you can apply for full membership.
Employment offers what is often the most expedited path to IA membership. One effective method for theatrical technicians and artists is through participation on a touring production that is covered under a yellow card IATSE contract.An individual hired on this type of show, like the national tour of A Chorus Line, is required to become a member in good standing with the union before he or she may report for work. The individual will fill out the appropriate membership application with accompanying forms from the employer and then pay the necessary initiation fee and quarterly dues. Continued membership and employment will be dependent on the individual paying regular dues and maintaining satisfactory performance on the job.
A second method that may apply to both theatrical production and film/television employees is membership through the Organizational List. This list represents companies or productions that are classified as open shops that may hire non-members under the union contract. Individuals who gain work through one or more of these companies and have successfully completed the required time in service can then apply for full membership with IATSE.
Length of service does not have to be with only one employer and can include all work the candidate performs, both full-time and freelance. These time requirements vary from one local to the next, and could be as little as 60 days or as much as three years. Additionally, a company or production that opens as a non-union shop and later enters into a collective bargaining agreement with IATSE can have the crew adopted into the membership after 30 days of successful employment.
There is a classification for non-member employees that is called an overhire or permit status worker. Some locals have an open door policy for accepting overhire technicians, whereby any non-member may request to be put on a list for freelance work when the union hall does not have adequate numbers to fill a production call. Certain halls, such as Local One, have a replacement room where anyone may visit in the early morning to pick up calls available that day. Similarly, non-members may contact a local chapter and apply for permit status, also called a permittee. This requires a written application and may also necessitate enrollment in union training courses. If granted permit status, you must regularly check in with the local office to provide your availability. For both overhire and permit status, when a gig becomes available, IA contacts individuals in order of seniority (how long you’ve been on the list) to make an offer. Once the overhire has met the predetermined requirement for hours worked (between 30 and 60 days), he or she may test for membership or sometimes receives an invitation for full membership. Be warned: If you get a slot on the list, do not refuse work. One refusal bumps you to the bottom of the list. If you pass repeatedly, you will be removed.
Paying Your Dues All new members are required to pay an application fee, initiation fee, quarterly membership dues, and work dues. Detailed information about these costs is available from the local chapter. Work dues are a percentage (usually between 2 percent and 5 percent) of your gross wages and are paid directly to the local chapter for any job secured for you through the union hall.
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