The International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE or IA) has been the most powerful union in the US film industry. Formed at the end of the nineteenth century, IATSE organized stage employees in the United States and Canada. As the entertainment industry expanded, IATSE grew to include motion picture projectionists and technical workers at the Hollywood studios and film exchanges throughout North America. When television was introduced, IATSE organized technical workers in the new medium. IATSE's history includes some dismal chapters from the 1930s when racketeers and criminals extorted funds from union members, as well as assisting in the ugly blacklisting activities that tainted Hollywood in the 1940s.
IATSE represents technicians, artisans and crafts-persons in the entertainment industry, including live theater, film and television production, and trade shows. More than 500 local unions in the US and Canada are affiliated with IA. IATSE has a tradition of local autonomy, with a variety of craft-based locals involved in collective bargaining agreements. However, nationwide agreements for film production personnel are negotiated, as well. Moreover, Local 600, the International Cinematographers Guild—which was formed in 1996 through a merger of regional groups—is national rather than local in its membership.
IA covers a wide range of employees in film production distribution and exhibition. Among the classifications of workers represented are art directors, story analysts, animators, set designers and set decorators, scenic artists, graphic artists, set painters, grips, electricians, property persons, set builders, teachers, costumers, make-up artists, hair stylists, motion picture and still camerapersons, sound technicians, editors, script supervisors, laboratory technicians, projectionists, utility workers, first aid employees, inspection, shipping, booking, and other distribution employees. IA's bargaining strength comes from this "complete coverage" of all the crafts involved in the production of theatrical, motion picture, or television products, with workers involved in every phase of a production, from its conception through every aspect of its execution.
The National Association for Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) grew first out of radio, and then television broadcasting. The union was organized at the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) as a company union (an industrial organization rather than craft oriented) as an alternative to the larger and more powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) (Koenig, Broadcasting and Bargaining ). NABET's relatively militant history is replete with skirmishes with IBEW and IATSE, as well as continuous rumors of a merger with the larger IATSE.
In 1990, NABET's Local 15, which organized 1,500 freelance film and tape technicians in New York, merged with IATSE. Then, in 1992, most of the other NABET locals joined the Communication Workers of America (CWA), effective January 1994. About 9,300 NABET members became a part of the much larger CWA, which by 2005 represented over 700,000 workers in telecommunications, printing, broadcasting, health care, and other fields, in both the private and public sectors. While most of NABET's members were to be moved to an independent broadcasting arm within CWA, NABET's West Coast Local 531 agreed to merge with IATSE because of its 500 members' closer affiliation with the film industry. Thus, IATSE became the only union in the United States to represent behind-the-camera film workers.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is the largest and strongest union in the US and also is active in the motion picture industry, organizing studio transportation workers on the West Coast and various other workers. In 2005 the Teamsters claimed a general membership of over 1.4 million in the United States and Canada; its Hollywood Local 399 had over 4,000 members working as drivers, location scouts, and other personnel in the film industry. Casting directors also joined the Teamsters in that year.