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Why This Is the 'Most Radical of All the Writers and Actors Strikes' in Hollywood History
Wednesday marks 100 days of the WGA strike
Los Angeles is a city in the throes of labor turmoil.
Consider: At studio lots from Culver City to Burbank, swaths of the 11,500 members of Writers Guild of America and 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA picket outside the gates every day. More than 15,000 hospitality workers under Unite Here! Local 11 are on rolling strikes at swanky hotels from the Beverly Hilton to the J.W. Marriott L.A. Live. And today, 7,000 or so city workers from Service Employees International Union Local 721 are striking for the first time in decades, with the aim of shutting down the town.
Then there are the 50-plus Marvel VFX workers who are looking to unionize under IATSE, and the unionization of producers and editorial employees at Harry and Meghan documentary production company Story Syndicate.
As the WGA strike reaches the 100-day mark on Wednesday, Hollywood — the city and the industry — is becoming the unlikely center of union activism and a symbol of mounting labor unrest throughout the region.
A hundred days is symbolic, yes, but also a milestone. The last writers strike in 2007-08 lasted 100 days exactly. But any hope that this one would be resolved by the same point was dashed on Friday after the WGA and AMPTP had a seemingly fruitless meeting that merely caused aggravation — and no word on when they might meet again.
“My thought is this is going to be the most radical of all the writers and actors strikes in the history of the industry,” says USC history professor Steven J. Ross, the author of Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America and Pulitzer-nominated Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics.
Why? Because it’s about more than just the usual stuff.
Sure, writers are seeking the “more traditional labor goal” of a strike, i.e. the workers’ demand for what they see as a fair share of the profits. “What we have seen over the years since 1960, in fact, particularly with the actors and writers every time [is]: Technology creates a new revenue stream. Workers want simply a fair share of the wealth being created by that new revenue stream,” says Ross.
The last time both SAG-AFTRA and the WGA were on strike at the same time was in 1960, under the Reagan administration of the Screen Actors Guild. That fight centered on residuals, says Ross, when TV networks began airing movies that had been made in the 1930s to 1950s, providing studios — but not directors, actors or writers — with an influx of cash. And SAG’s last individual TV/theatrical strike took place in 1980, that time over residuals from home video.
“What we have seen over the years since 1960, in fact, particularly with the actors and writers every time [is]: Technology creates a new revenue stream. Workers want simply a fair share of the wealth being created by that new revenue stream”
Writers who were on the picket lines in 2007-08 largely recall feeling more alone in that battle than they do now. Since this WGA strike started in May, union members from groups that represent school workers, sanitation employees, hospitality workers and other professions have increasingly been joining writers and actors on the picket lines. The activity is spurring momentum and confidence among pockets of Hollywood that have not been traditionally unionized.
“We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that’s breaking down old barriers in the industry and proving we’re all in this fight together,” said IATSE International president Matthew Loeb in a statement Monday about the Marvel VFX workers’ efforts. “That doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Entertainment workers everywhere are sticking up for each other's rights, that’s what our movement is all about.”
What makes the double strike of 2023 different, what makes it “the most intense strike ever,” says Ross, is “the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. I think the writers and actors understand they need to take a stand right now. Because by the time the next contract comes, it may be too late.”
While streaming residuals, minimum staffing and mini rooms are major concerns for the writers in particular, AI has surged to the forefront of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, fueling chatter and all manner of picket signs on the lines.
VFX workers in particular “realize they could very easily be replaced by artificial intelligence,” Ross adds. “For them, it's not just getting better pay. It's also protecting their very careers, their very existence as workers in Hollywood. That's why I think as the use of artificial intelligence grows, or even the threat of the use of artificial intelligence, you can't complain after it's already taken hold of everything. You need to organize right now.”
And the rapid growth of the technology is cause for alarm beyond Hollywood. Americans, already “appalled” by the “stark greed on the part of the studios” and astronomically high pay of CEOs like Disney’s Bob Iger, says Ross, are increasingly sympathetic to unionization “because, again, everyone sees that artificial intelligence poses a threat to many industries. You need the lesson people have learned: Just don't wait until, as they say, the cow’s out of the barn.”
In a recent Los Angeles Times/Leger survey, 38 percent of respondents sympathized with the writers and actors unions. Only seven percent felt their allegiances lay with the studios. (About a quarter of those surveyed didn’t feel any particular sympathies, and 29 percent sympathized with both the unions and studios equally.)
The months-long strike has not been without hardship, as the work stoppage ripples through the industry, not only among actors and writers, but everyone from craft services workers to agency assistants to production company staffers who now find themselves without income. But outside Hollywood’s historic TV and movie studios, among those who are sweating it out on the picket lines in often 90-degree heat, the sentiment is: we’ll keep going for as long as we have to.
On stage at a hundreds-strong rally at the La Brea Tar Pits in late June, I’m a Virgo creator Boots Riley — not only a member of the WGA, DGA and SAG-AFTRA, but a former Teamster when he worked at UPS — perhaps best summed up working Hollywood’s sentiment to the cheering crowd: “We're not just fighting for us right now. In the last three years, there's been over 2,900 strikes in the US. Over 2,900. They're scared. They're scared of what's going on, they're scared of how militant, how ready to fight we become.”
“It's more than just about money. We want a different world,” he said at the event. “We want a world where we control the wealth that's created by our labor and that's gonna take the kind of movement that's building now.”
Today in Strike News
Another two groups impacted by the strike: Hollywood’s animal handlers, who cannot work, receive no residuals and face the threat of AI, as well as the animals themselves, who are left to their non-filming hobbies. “[He’s] sleeping, snoring and farting, basically,” trainer Bill Berloni says about the bulldog who plays And Just Like That…’s Richard Burton, Charlotte’s dog on the Sex and the City sequel series. (Washington Post)
In response to the ongoing work stoppage, the Directors Guild of America has begun offering free major medical coverage for eligible members who are out of work. (Variety)
Disney has formed a task force to study AI and see how it can benefit their business through both in-house use and partnerships with startups. (Reuters)
Though Warner Bros. Discovery saved somewhere in the “low $100 million range” during its second quarter, long-term negative effects of the production halt are on the horizon as the fall TV season and upcoming box office slate begin to quiver. “Of course, there’s the short-term benefit from the strike that the media companies will recognize higher free cash flow as production is shut down,” says MoffettNathanson research analyst Robert Fishman. “But the sustainability of that is really short-sighted. It’s not something that will benefit them in the long term.” (Los Angeles Times)
In Virginia, where the film and TV industry employs 5,500 full-time employees and contributes $1.2 billion to the state’s economy, the strike has provoked calls for greater tax incentives to allow for more production. “[When a big production comes to Virginia], they do everything from buying paper clips to renting helicopters. Office supplies, building supplies — they’ll pull up into a lumber supply operation and just buy flat sheds and flatbeds full of lumber,” Virginia Film Office Director Andy Edmunds says. “Everything from massage therapists to dog walkers, you name it. They affect all parts of the economy in a unique way.” (Virginia Mercury)
Most films are finding it difficult to shoot without actors, but if your movie stars a blue hedgehog, maybe it’s a little easier. Scenes not involving actors will reportedly be shot for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 in the U.K. starting in September. (Screen Daily)
Picket Sign of the Day
Additional reporting by Matthew Frank.
Disclosure: Elaine Low is an inactive SAG-AFTRA member.