Spotlight on Class Struggle: Actors and Writers Join Forces

It turns out the biggest drama of the summer isn’t Barbie or Oppenheimer, it’s the labor struggle unfolding in Hollywood. It’s a team up between beleaguered writers and actors against a supervillain as bad as any you’d see in an action movie: the big studios and streamers, including Disney, Netflix, and Amazon.

On July 13 the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union representing 160,000 actors, called a strike. They join the Writers Guild of America (WGA), who have been striking since May 2, escalating the struggle against the producers, studios and streamers represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The writers and actors share many of the same demands: wages that keep up with inflation, increased residual payments for streaming, and protections against artificial intelligence (AI).

The strike will have a huge impact and hit the bosses hard. American film and television is a $134-billion industry. Production was already severely wounded by WGA pickets shutting down 80% of shoots in L.A. It’s now stopped dead everywhere, including internationally. Not only has filming halted, but actors will not be promoting films—no red carpets, no Emmys, no San Diego Comic Con. The Los Angeles Times is warning that the double strike will “forever change” the industry.

In her speech at the press conference announcing the strike, SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher (star of The Nanny) emphasized the gravity of the union’s decision. “It’s a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people all across this country and around the world—not only members of this union, but people who work in other industries.” But Drescher argued the danger of not striking was worse. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business who cares more about Wall Street than you and your family. Most Americans don’t have more than $500 in case of an emergency. This is a very big deal, and it weighed heavy on us. But at some point you have to say, ‘No, we’re not going to take this anymore.’”

The film and television industry has been upended so drastically by the pandemic, streaming and AI that Hollywood actors and writers are both questioning how they can survive. They are waging an existential fight, all while inflation and the general crisis of capitalism is bearing down on workers everywhere. Their struggle is a dramatic example of the same fight workers everywhere must fight.

“Hollywood elites”?

For weeks now, A-listers from Margot Robbie to Harrison Ford have been stopped by reporters on the red carpet and asked for their star-studded opinions on the impending strike. From this kind of coverage, some people get the idea that the actor’s strike is just millionaires spatting with millionaires.

But the truth is that the vast, vast majority of actors in SAG-AFTRA are nowhere near A-list levels of wealth. In fact, they are striking precisely to secure a living they can rely on.

In film and television, work is ephemeral, irregular, and for most, low paid. Inflation is eating into base wages, as it is everywhere, and the proliferation of streaming over broadcast television means actors are working shorter contracts with more time between seasons. Eighty-seven percent of SAG-AFTRA actors do not earn the $26,000 a year needed to qualify for health insurance.

Even landing a gig as a series regular is not a ticket to stability.

In a TikTok video about television pay, Ugly Betty actor David Blue said, “I know multiple series regulars, leads of shows, recently, who had to move back home with their parents because they just couldn’t afford rent.”

Luke Cook (The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) has two side jobs besides acting and estimates, “95% of the actors in SAG cannot make a living from acting. They’ve got to have side hustles.”

Curt Mega talked about his experience as a recurring actor on Glee. “We’re making, when you average it all out, minimum wage,” Mega said. “The one thing that we had, the one thing, was residuals. Guess what? Glee is now on Disney+. I don’t get residuals from that show anymore. Or if I do, it’s like two cents.”

Residuals are payments actors (and writers) get when their shows or movies are rerun on television. They were a concession wrung out from studios the last time actors and writers struck together, back in 1960. Residual payments kept broadcasters from filling their airtime entirely with cheap reruns by putting a price on them, and helped keep actors afloat in between jobs. The 1980 SAG strike was similarly a fight over residuals, this time in relation to a shiny new medium called videocassettes.

When streaming came onto the scene, however, the entertainment unions were slow to react and fight for good contracts that covered new media. Residuals meant nothing in a medium where “reruns” didn’t really exist.

The other impact Netflix had was the precedent it set for paying their stars scale (that is, SAG-AFTRA’s minimum rate).

The cast of Netflix’s flagship hit Orange is the New Black have been very open about how little they got out of the show that put the streamer on the map. Matt McGorry said, “I kept my day job the entire time I was on the show because it paid better than the mega-hit TV show we were on.” And Lori Tan Chinn, who appeared in six seasons, said she couldn’t afford the boxed set of the show and considered going on food stamps.

When Netflix was new they justified their cut-rate pay by being the scrappy underdog trying to make it with an experimental medium. But that excuse doesn’t hold up when the experiment becomes a global sensation like Orange Is the New Black. What it amounts to is capitalists taking an opportunity to claw back advances workers had won in the past—in this case, residuals. This is a struggle that all workers have to contend with as bosses try to wring profits out of a system in crisis.

From artificial intelligence to artificial actors

While the skyrocketing cost of living and evaporating residuals are making acting ever more precarious, the job is being threatened with downright nonexistence by AI and related technology.

With an AI program subbing in a vocal performance for 91-year-old James Earl Jones in last year’s Obi-Wan Kenobi series, and multiple dead actors cameoing via CGI in this year’s The Flash, AI is playing an ever-greater role in film production. This is raising alarm among human artists, who fear having to compete with machines, or even being rendered obsolete.

At the SAG-AFTRA press conference, union COO and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland dropped a bombshell when he conveyed the AMPTP’s AI proposal, “that our background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity, any project they want with no consent and no compensation.”

Shockwaves of indignation immediately reverberated across the industry.

Actress Justine Bateman, who was an AI consultant for SAG-AFTRA during negotiations, added on Twitter:

The AMPTP not only wanted to own background actors specific likeness forever, but wanted to feed 100 YEARS OF ACTING PERFORMANCES (for a nominal fee) to train the GAI [generative artificial intelligence] models. So all our work could be frankensteined into “new” AI characters. And NO consent from any of the actors.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, automation—which, under a rational system, would make things easier for workers—has thrown skilled laborers onto the street and driven down wages. Creative professions seemed safe from the threat of automation until the recent explosion of generative AI. The ability to generate a convincing AI performance is a technological feat that opens up limitless creative potential. Under capitalism, however, the possibilities are purely dystopian.

There are many more issues the actors are striking over, but AI protections, wage increases, and residual payments are key. These are also demands that the actors share with striking writers. SAG-AFTRA’s struggle against the AMPTP is not isolated, and it started not on July 14, but on May 2, with the WGA.

The writers’ strike—a story of solidarity

Of the three major Hollywood guilds negotiating their contracts this year—the WGA, the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), and SAG-AFTRA—the writers were up first.

Their strike was not a surprise. The WGA has a history of being the most militant of the three guilds, having struck most recently in 2007–8, and the AMPTP was stonewalling their demands. The producers’ strategy seemed to be to instigate a strike and then leave the writers out to dry. But something happened that the AMPTP wasn’t counting on: solidarity.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents crew members, and Teamsters Local 399 refused to cross WGA picket lines, halting filming across Los Angeles and New York.

The degree of solidarity was a marked change from the last strike. Showrunner Mike Schiff observed for The Hollywood Reporter, “In 2007, I thought there might have been some resentment… certainly I got the feeling of, wait, we want to be working, what are you doing?”

Another show runner said, “It’s a million percent different than last time around.” This palpable solidarity is based on a shared struggle against a common enemy. “They are all getting variously screwed by these companies and they know the only way to win is to stick together.”

WGA East strike captain David Simon credited IATSE and the Teamsters with making the picket lines a success, and explained, “This all bubbled up from the rank and file up to the leadership of the guilds. I don’t think people knew how pissed off everybody was until they started comparing notes. That’s what motivates this.”

In a month’s time all on-location filming in L.A. was shut down, and studio executives were admitting anonymously that the writers’ tactics were “effective.”

Unfortunately, the same level of solidarity was not shown by the leadership of the DGA or SAG-AFTRA. While they did encourage their members to visit the picket lines, they also reminded them to honor their contracts and continue filming.

Fran Drescher—who, to her credit, is now taking a much more militant line—caught some flak in May for saying she didn’t believe that what is “important to writers… is the kind of stuff that we’re [SAG] going after.” She soon walked back those comments, though in another interview she seemed more focused on the strike’s impact on a possible Nanny reboot than its fair resolution.

The DGA folds and the WGA holds the line

A blow to the struggle came on June 3 when the DGA accepted a deal. The agreement was billed as making “historic breakthroughs,” though the wage gains it secured were below inflation, viewership-based residuals were left untouched, and members worried it didn’t go far enough on AI protections.

The deal was seen as a betrayal by many writers because of the tradition of pattern bargaining in Hollywood, in which the terms of the DGA deal are typically applied to the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. The 2007–8 strike ultimately ended with the WGA agreeing to terms very similar to those set by the directors. One dual WGA-DGA member angrily called the DGA a “Vichy guild.”

The WGA had braced for the hit though. The day before the DGA contract expired, WGA negotiating committee co-chair Chris Keyser released a video to membership assuring them that the AMPTP would “find out that [their] 2007/8 playbook doesn’t belong in a negotiating room, it belongs in a museum. Any deal that puts this town back to work runs straight through the WGA, and there is no way around us.”

The video was an example of what the WGA was doing very well: transparency, communication, and keeping up morale. Weeks into the strike, high levels of morale on the picket lines were remarkable. Writer Michael Schur noted, “The things that will keep our spirits up are transparency, a sense of purpose, a sense of unity.”

A part of that purpose is how the writers understand their struggle in the context of the wider labor movement. “We are marching for labor, and labor is watching us,” Keyser said in his message. “If we succeed, we will make it easier, not easy, but easier, for others to succeed after us. If we falter, if we fail, if it is the companies’ power that wins the day and not ours, then we will have failed for everyone… And I mean that not as a burden but as a purpose.”

There was an understanding that everyone was there for the long haul. While many union leaders seem eager to wrap up strikes as soon as possible, the WGA entered their strike knowing it would be a long one. As Keyser said, “The single thing that will determine whether we succeed or fail in this strike is our endurance, both physical and emotional.” That sense of resolve has permeated the picket lines.

SAG-AFTRA bends to pressure from “below”

Once the DGA struck a deal, the AMPTP moved on to negotiating with SAG-AFTRA.

Prior to entering negotiations, the actors’ union took a strike authorization vote. It came back with a historic 97.91% in favor.

As the June 30 contract expiration date drew closer, however, the union was conspicuously not taking steps to prepare for a strike. On June 24 Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland released a video saying, “We are having an extremely productive negotiations” [sic], signaling SAG-AFTRA would go the way of the DGA.

The video triggered an uproar among the rank and file. And in a union of Hollywood actors, some of those rank and file command a lot of attention.

More than 300 A-list actors, including the likes of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, signed an open letter that hit all the trade papers expressing a pointed lack of confidence in union leadership. “[W]e are prepared to strike if it comes to that. And we are concerned by the idea that SAG-AFTRA members may be ready to make sacrifices that leadership is not.”

While the letter’s signatories were some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, the issues it highlighted included those that are “an enormous problem for working class actors,” such as inflation and the practice of self-tape auditions.

The letter concluded, “If you are not able to get all the way there, we ask that you use the power given to you by us, the membership, and join the WGA on the picket lines.”

In the days that followed, hundreds more actors signed on to the letter, including, strangely enough, Fran Drescher herself.

SAG-AFTRA has a unique dynamic, in which rank-and-file members can have more power and influence than the leadership. But the process taking place within it is not special. Rank-and-file union members can and do push their leadership to be more militant. As the crisis of capitalism intensifies and labor struggles heat up, it is a phenomenon we will see more of.

The letter had its effect. The June 30 deadline arrived, and SAG-AFTRA neither struck nor folded. They agreed to extend their contract until July 12.

The momentum had changed. Soon SAG-AFTRA was calling for strike captain volunteers and briefing publicists and entertainment lawyers on what their clients would and would not be permitted to do in the event of a strike.

Sources reported the AMPTP were getting frustrated with what they called the “intransigence” of a “militant minority” in the union. They tried to call in a federal mediator to smooth things over.

Then, with a day to go, trade publication Deadline dropped an article quoting anonymous studio executives, revealing that their “endgame” for the WGA strike “is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” It blatantly stated that “Warner Bros Discovery, Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Paramount and others have become determined to ‘break the WGA.’”

SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA on the picket lines on July 14. / Image: SAG-AFTRA Twitter

Trades like Deadline don’t generally do investigative journalism; they print plants. The article was almost certainly a calculated move on the part of the studios to intimidate SAG-AFTRA into taking a deal. And it backfired. The article hit the internet like an incendiary bomb.

Negotiations fell apart, and when Fran Drescher spoke at the SAG-AFTRA press conference, she was a far cry from where she had been in May and June.

“I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us,” Drescher railed. “I cannot believe it… How they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right, when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting.” And she continued, “So the jig is up, AMPTP… You share the wealth because you cannot exist without us.”

“Eventually the people break down the gates of Versailles, and then it’s over,” Drescher added in a reference to the French Revolution. “Well, we’re at that moment right now.”

SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA on the picket lines on July 14, entering a struggle that has been remarkable for the workers’ enthusiasm, resolve, and solidarity.

An industry in crisis

One thing the contentious Deadline article got right was that this will be a long struggle. The companies feel themselves under just as much pressure as their workers.

COVID wreaked havoc on theatrical releases, and streaming has completely disrupted broadcast television. While streaming seems to have emerged victorious over these more traditional mediums, it has yet to produce traditional levels of profits. So streamers have done a complete about face: from throwing money at shows to win viewers, to slashing programs in a desperate bid to increase profit margins and appease investors.

This is where Disney CEO Bob Iger was coming from when he complained on CNBC that “this is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption,” and griped that writers and actors are, “just not realistic.”

That’s not to say there isn’t money in entertainment, it’s just a matter of where that money is going. Iger’s $45.9-million compensation package alone would go a long way towards meeting the actors’ and writers’ demands.

The question now is, which side can survive longer? Studios like Paramount and Universal might start to suffer from a content drought, but tech companies like Apple and Amazon have other revenue streams to sustain them.

Actors and writers, on the other hand, are used to going for months without work in their field, and are in the unique position of having millionaires contributing to their strike fund. Most fundamental to their success, however, will be solidarity. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA must resist the inevitable efforts of the AMPTP to divide them, and negotiate together. If one union accepts a deal on its own, it will only undermine the other. This is exactly how studio executives are using the DGA, with Iger imploring the writers and actors to follow the directors’ example. But together, they will have more power than they do alone.

Solidarity in the spotlight

It is not only solidarity between the entertainment unions that has been the strength of this struggle, but solidarity across industries.

WGA lines have been boosted by workers from all kinds of unions, including the United Teachers of Los Angeles and National Nurses United. The writers and actors both have gotten huge amounts of sympathy from the general public.

It’s not surprising. Wages eroded by inflation, past gains being clawed back by greedy bosses, the threat of being automated out of a job—these are hardships that workers everywhere understand, that workers everywhere are fighting back against.

The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are happening in the middle of a Los Angeles strike wave. About half the big American strikes this year have happened in California.

Since July 2, about 30,000 hospitality workers organized in Unite Here Local 11 have been on strike—the biggest hotel worker strike in US history. Unite Here and WGA workers have been visiting each other’s picket lines.

“You would never imagine they have the same struggles as us—they’re from the movies!” said Lili Hernandez, a Fairmont Miramar housekeeper. “But it turns out we’re in the same boat. We need to make sure we don’t sink.”

The WGA also showed their thanks for Teamster solidarity by supporting the delivery driver picket line at a Santa Clarita Amazon warehouse. The two unions, seemingly so different, are up against the same enemy.

It’s this context of the wider labor struggle that makes the Hollywood strike so important. By their nature, the writers’ and actors’ unions have a spotlight like no other. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA are playing a starring role in the labor movement and setting an example for the entire working class.

When Fran Drescher said, “the eyes of the world and particularly the eyes of labor are upon us,” she was right.

When the WGA and SAG-AFTRA show solidarity, militancy, and resolve, that is a lesson for the entire working class. When they strike a blow against Netflix, Disney, and Amazon, that is a blow for the entire working class.

Victory to the writers!

Victory to the actors!

Support to all the workers in the entertainment industry!

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