If TV seems bad lately, wait until you see what next year has to offer. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) took to the picket lines on May 2 and has been out for three weeks. With studios standing firm and firing off inflammatory and possibly illegal provocations, the strike — the first by screenwriters in fifteen years, when the WGA walked out for over a month — shows no sign of ending soon. And while writing jobs are often denigrated as soft and frivolous by reactionaries (echoing the rhetoric of bosses), the current strike serves as a reminder that Hollywood has always been part of the broader push and pull between labor and capital.
Many issues are at play in the strike, most of them concerning automation. Almost all of the guild’s twenty thousand members are facing severe reductions in their income as studios reclassify streaming media as a sort of protected category, resulting in writers receiving a tiny percentage of what they once made from residuals. Additionally, buying the tech hype of the moment, some studios — very likely being sold a bill of goods by equally profit-hungry bosses in a different industry — believe that they can cut writers out of the equation by replacing them with artificial intelligence.
If the ownership class in Hollywood thinks that it can crush the writers’ strike and go on with business as usual, pausing only to teach ChatGPT how to write a convincing episode of prestige television, it’s likely in for a rude awakening. The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union that represents film and television actors, is already picketing in solidarity with the WGA, and its national executive director has urged members to vote to authorize a strike. Meanwhile, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) is itself engaged in contract negotiations with the studios, and the revenue-stripping from streaming is a common thread between all three unions. If directors, writers, and actors all struck together — a big if, to be fair — executives might have to start tap dancing on street corners to pay their mortgages.
While the entertainment industry is often derided by both the Right (as effete, snobbish elites) and the Left (as frivolous creators of propaganda and distraction), it’s a vital part of the US economy. The film and television industries alone are worth more than $2 trillion, and business is booming, growing at a rate of nearly 9 percent a year.
The entertainment sector employs nearly five million people, and is one of the most heavily unionized in the country; its loci in New York and Los Angeles, two of the country’s most expensive cities, encourage active participation by members who need good wages just to remain living where they work. What’s more, entertainment industry workers have been unionized longer than many industrial and service unions. Hollywood saw a huge union push in the 1930s, and the oldest union in the business — the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which started out representing vaudeville workers — has been around for almost 150 years. The WGA emerged in the 1950s out of a merger of five different unions, one dating back to 1921, giving bargaining power to workers who had previously been treated by studios as disposable.
The entertainment industry has also been a boon for other unions. Teamsters Local 399, representing Hollywood, is one of the biggest and most influential chapters in the country. It is likely to put its full weight behind the WGA, especially as Teamsters face a likely strike of their own later this year at UPS. Peripheral unions, from those representing trades and crafts to newer ones focused on service, are all impacted by entertainment-sector strikes. And even studios’ attempts to sidestep fair labor practices by dumping work on the burgeoning tech industry are finding that easier said than done — this industry, too, is pushing to unionize. Bad news for the CGI-driven superhero movies that have so far been cash cows for studio bosses.
Still, anyone who knows the history of labor knows that the moneyed class doesn’t put down its weapons, no matter how organized labor is. Hollywood bosses have a long history of going after workers, most prominently through anti-communist witch hunts and other moral panics. The Hollywood blacklist of the 1940s and 1950s put thousands of people out of work and ruined careers. It censored and suppressed movies about unions, even when they weren’t about unions in the industry (a good lesson that bosses may hate class solidarity when it’s carried out by workers, but are never shy about engaging in it themselves). The red-baiting reverberations echoed for decades.
More recently, strikes in the late 1980s by the DGA and WGA (whose 1988 strike lasted almost six weeks, the longest in its history, and cost the industry half a billion dollars) revolved around production credits, which not only help set pay rates and other compensation, but are also critical tools for workers to secure future jobs. Much as the current strike springs from uncertainty about how AI will impact the writer’s job, the last WGA strike, which ended in February 2008, dealt with the impact of new technologies as more and more entertainment product was created for the internet. It’s a recurring story: technological developments generate great promise and excitement, but the bosses are keen to make sure that none of the benefits flow to people who do the work.
Among the most insidious tactics of bosses in the creative fields is to tell workers that they’re “special” and “unique,” that they use their brains and hearts and not their hands to create value. Management knows that most artists are passionate about what they do, and studios reinforce that sentiment, knowing many will settle for less because they feel lucky to be “doing what they love.” But it’s the same old story since Karl Marx (himself a professional writer) laid things out: workers, in the arts or elsewhere, create the value but don’t get to decide what to do with the profits. Artists deserve a dignified existence, not a demotion to personal assistants for a computer program.
It can be hard to know how to help with the strike, as it’s unclear how long it will last or how many other unions will join in solidarity strikes. The WGA isn’t yet calling for boycotts, and SAG workers are required by law to show up for filming as long as they’re under contract. But there are still plenty of things you can do, from pushing your unions to engage in solidarity actions with the WGA to donating to strike support funds. Many chapters of Democratic Socialists of America are planning support activities, and if you’re located in New York or Los Angeles, you can join the picket lines yourself. It also helps to name and shame prominent entertainment industry figures who cross the pickets.
Most of all, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep alert to the copious propaganda the studios will release as the strike drags on, including the absurd claim that the guild wants to establish a “hiring quota.” Molding public sentiment is a big part of what the entertainment industry does, and union busting is disgusting even when it’s done by the people who pump out your favorite movies and television. Remember that a dream factory is still a factory, and while some of the writers on strike have been greatly enriched by their work, many others are struggling to get by in an industry that values their labor less and less every year. Dividing the sympathies of the working class is the oldest trick in the bosses’ book, and the solution to worker exploitation is that you should make more, not that you should make less.
Hollywood has always been addicted to self-promotion and mythologizing, as might be expected from a town built on shaping the stories we tell. But behind all the hype is the concrete, often unglamorous struggle between owners and the workers. At times, the bosses think they’ve finally found the solution to breaking the power of organized labor once and for all. But the studios are in an unenviable position. With foreign markets more valuable than ever, and huge blockbusters costing so much to produce that they can’t afford to fail, the studios have become risk-shy and penny-wise. If they try to freeze out the writers, and actors and directors join the strike, we may have an answer to the question: What if we made a movie and nobody came?