Will Solidarity Among Hollywood's Unions Make this Strike Different?Roundup
tags: film, strikes, Hollywood, labor history, Writers Guild
Miranda Banks is department chair and associate professor at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television and author of "The Writers: A History of American Screenwriters and Their Guild."
Kate Fortmueller is associate professor at Georgia State University in the School of Film, Media, and Theater and author of "Below the Stars: How the Labor of Actors and Extras Shape Media Production and Hollywood Shutdown: Production, Distribution, and Exhibition in the Time of COVID."
On June 14, supporters of the Writers Guild of America’s strike against the film and media studios and streaming services held an International Day of Solidarity, with protests across the globe. Yet while international support makes for great visibility, the solidarity that the WGA most needs now is from its sister guilds and unions — something that hasn’t always occurred during Hollywood labor fights.
Traditionally, unions have not closed ranks, which has undermined their leverage in negotiations with the studios. Even worse, they’ve suffered from internal divisions, which have further weakened their hand. Yet there are signs that this time might be different, including a rally with members of multiple unions held last month at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
And given what is at stake during this negotiation, that unity is crucial. Streaming services have changed how audiences watch and pay for media, all while creating demand for a perennial flow of new films and television shows.
Especially after the coronavirus pandemic made streaming essential, writers have confronted the combination of insatiable demand for new content and shrinking resources that make it hard to survive financially. Where once a series might have 13 to 24 episodes a season, streamers want six episodes to test the market. Writers are getting paid less in part because they are hired for shorter periods of time with no promise of residual pay for reruns.
The rapid pandemic-fueled rise of streaming means that writers, actors and directors have to make up a lot of ground in the 2023 negotiations. Media workers recognize the fundamental shifts and understand that if they are to address the myriad issues presented by streaming, they need the solidarity that has rarely been present in Hollywood.
Historically, Hollywood unions have had uneasy rapport with each other, even in moments of adversity. In 1936, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) refused to recognize the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as the representative for screen actors until the actors threatened to lend their famous faces to a rival union.
In 1945, violence erupted on a picket line, when the mob-connected and anti-communist IATSE leadership subsumed the more radical Conference of Studio Unions.
The union conflict of this period was memorable. Ronald Reagan, an actor who eventually became the SAG president, crossed this picket line and often said the violence he saw there inspired his strong anti-communist beliefs.