Double feature: Actors and writers take on Hollywood bosses in blockbuster strikes

July 14, 2023. Strikers in front of NYC corporate offices of HBO and Amazon. PHOTO: Elias Holtz / FS
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On May 2, the 12,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. Then on July 13, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) added its 160,000 members to the picket lines of Los Angeles and New York City. This joint action is rocking the entertainment industry with its potential to usher in gains for all organized labor.

Propelling both writers and actors into action are profit-hungry studios whose CEOs are looking to squeeze more work out of fewer workers as they rake in the billions.

Over the past few decades, the industry has gone through massive corporate consolidations, creating mega-monopolies like billionaire behemoths Warner Bros. Discovery, Comcast, Disney, and Paramount whose only concerns are enormous profits and huge executive pay packages. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) speaks for these behemoths, as well as Amazon and Apple, which are viciously anti-union corporations.

“No wages, no pages!” Writers are defending traditionally secure, well-paid employment against corporate attempts to turn their jobs over to the so-called “gig” economy where writers are forced to string together short stints of work to make a living.

For both writers and actors, a major contract issue is that of residuals: money paid when programs are repeated. This is income that keeps these workers afloat between jobs. The move from traditional broadcasting to streaming has been used by the corporations as an excuse to stiff writers and actors on residuals, even though streaming content reaches even larger audiences.

The threat of artificial intelligence (AI). The grave threat AI poses to workers at the hands of corporations is central to the high stakes of both strikes. CEOs are chomping at the bit to use AI to both replace writers and exploit actors. One proposal is to pay extras for a single day of work, then scan and digitally replicate them, and use their image endlessly. “The studios’ plans for AI and background actors is something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi film, in all its ironic horror,” said Eddie Robinson, a SAG-AFTRA member.

WGA Negotiating Commission Co-Chair Chris Keyser stated, “Technology driven by unchecked capitalism is a threat to us all!”

In other words, the strike is providing a clear example of the need for working-class control over new technology to ensure its use for public good, not to line the pockets of a few.

Solidarity is key.  Standing up to the AMPTP has generated an historic upsurge of solidarity within and beyond the heavily unionized entertainment field because every sector of the industry is experiencing cutbacks and threats to livelihood.

Coming to the defense of their union siblings are the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents a whole umbrella of TV and movie workers, and the Teamsters who drive production trucks. Both unions have helped shut down television and movie sites by refusing to cross the picket line.

Lindsay Dougherty, leader of Hollywood Teamsters Local 399, tweeted: “The AMPTP has declared war on Hollywood Labor & it’s a war they’re going to get & lose.” These unionized crews have the power to decide whether the show goes on or not. And nothing gets the bosses’ attention better than losing profits.

To lessen the impact of the strike, big studios are hoping to use unscripted, reality TV to fill their programming, which is largely produced by non-union workers. But these very workers, who often face lower pay and worse conditions than their union counterparts, are joining the fight too. Workers at Food Network’s show “The Kitchen” recently organized with the Writer’s Guild and were on the picket line supporting striking writers. “These greedy studios want to divide and conquer and pit us against each other. So, we’ve got to both win the strike and unionize the whole industry if we want decent conditions,” said Elias Holtz, a member of the newly formed union.

New energy fires up organizing. Pickets are filled with vitality and resolve that reflect the changing character of the industry.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter outcry drove a whole new wave of diverse programming and helped people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people break into writers’ rooms and play authentic and compelling new roles.

These workers not only bring their talent to their professions, but also have infused the rank and file of their unions with militancy, tenacity, and a sense of solidarity, driving the strike forward with new urgency and resolve.

The strikes are a huge step forward for working people, organically strengthening the already organized and showing the way forward for the unorganized. Union drives and struggles are bursting onto the scene with increasing frequency, with each fight giving encouragement to the next.

As one WGA organizer summed up: “We are marching for labor, and labor is watching us. If we succeed, it will make it easier for others in the future.”

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