by James Delhauer
It very much feels as though Hollywood is at a crossroads. The #MeToo Movement began a cascade of high-profile scandals that continue to this day. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the industry from a “Cinema First” to a “Streaming First” model that’s proven financially disastrous. The 2021 IATSE Basic Agreement & Area Standards Agreement negotiations unveiled a longstanding custom of worker abuse through platforms like the IAStories Instagram account. Throughout 2022, Variety and Deadline reported on the deteriorating working conditions in visual effect companies. The oversaturation of CGI-heavy blockbusters had created a crunch culture of unpaid overtime and exhaustion. Then on May 2, 11,500 members of the WGA put down their pens and walked off the job in protest of the poor wages, conditions, and job security protections offered by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. On July 14, they were joined by more than 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. For a combined 191 days, film and television productions across the country shut down and the industry nearly went dormant. Now the strikes have come to an end and production is beginning to resume. According to the Milken Institute, the strikes have cost the American economy approximately $6 billion. So as the dust settles, let’s take stock of what’s just happened.
Throughout early 2023, there was a growing sense that production was beginning to slow in anticipation of the strikes. The Motion Picture Industry Health & Pension Plans have reported a steep decline in reported working hours as early as February compared to 2021 and 2022. By April, the plans had seen almost a 20% reduction in working hours. Perhaps this was merely a result of the studio’s realization that they had overcommitted on the development of streaming content during the pandemic, but that’s a hard narrative to accept. Early on during the strikes, Deadline and Variety reported that studio execs were going to “bleed out” the unions, that “The endgame [was] to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” and that the studios said they were indulging in a “cruel, but necessary evil.” Such public statements make it clear that the goal was to break us; not just the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, but all of labor.
This adversarial relationship that has cropped up between business and labor is to nobody’s benefit. The studios did not save themselves any money by allowing a strike to go on for 191 days. The concessions that were made in September and November could have been made in May and July, and we’d all be $6 billion better off for it. Nearly 40% of the Los Angeles economy is tied to the motion picture industry, which translated to a very real cost for almost 4 million of the 9.83 million Los Angeles County residents. That is to say nothing of entertainment workers throughout the rest of the country and world who were impacted. Now both business and labor are trying to recover from wounds inflicted upon one another as we stare down the IATSE and Teamster contract negotiations set to take place next year.
A more productive relationship between both sides going forward is essential. In my experience, filmmakers don’t want to go on strike. Getting into this business is a dream that many have and the select few of us who managed to get our foot in the door want to keep chasing that dream as far as we can. We want to make movies and shows that we can share with millions of people around the world. We want to explore our crafts and become better and more skilled craftspeople than we were yesterday. We’re proud people who are proud of the art we create. But before all of that, we’re human beings. We have families. We have needs. We want to be our employers’ proud collaborators.
But this isn’t a collaboration. Setting out to bleed your partners dry and watch them lose their homes is not partnership at all. Worst of all, it didn’t even work. Labor banded together. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA were not alone on the strike lines. They were joined by the IATSE, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Basic Crafts, and the labor community as a whole. Workers from labor unions that have nothing to do with entertainment joined us in solidarity on the picket lines. What’s more, we worked hard to take care of one another.
During the strike, our partners at the Motion Picture Television Fund (MPTF) and the Entertainment Community Fund moved mountains to support out-of-work casts and crews, offering a combined total of more than $15 million in grants to workers whose jobs were impacted or suspended by the strikes. Both the IATSE and the Teamsters set up more than $4 million each in relief funds for their respective memberships in order to create a safety net for those who were out of work due to the strikes. Similarly, Local 695 contributed another $250,000 specifically to support our members and various other locals across the country set up similar support systems for their members.
Numerous food and grocery drives were set up, helping hundreds of workers put food on the table for their families. Thanksgiving saw the IATSE, the Brotherhood of Teamsters, and Basic Crafts joined with Labor Community Services to provide up to 2,500 families with Thanksgiving meals to celebrate the holiday. Those on the strike line created a sense of comradery with music and performances for one another. This is the strength of the labor movement: Unity. It feels almost redundant to have to say this, but the power of unions is that we are unified. Our core principle comes down to the idea that an injury to one is an injury to all. So when our brothers, sisters, and kin took to the strike lines, the whole of the labor community flocked to support them.
As of November 14, more than 366 labor actions have occurred in the United States in 2023. We are seeing a swell within the labor movement as strike after strike results in new and fairer deals being made between labor and business. For the first time in almost sixty years, Gallup has reported that 71% of Americans support unions and our cause. The momentum that we’ve built will continue into next year as the IATSE and International Brotherhood of Teamsters go into their negotiations with the AMPTP. Labor is united. The employers should remember that.