Workers shut down Hollywood in historic two-union strike

Photo credit: @sagaftra

The Screen Actors Guild is going on strike. Today, the union’s national board of directors voted unanimously to launch a nationwide strike against the studios after contract negotiations collapsed Wednesday night. In an emotional press conference, union leaders revealed shocking details about the studio’s counterproposals that in the words of SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher were “insulting” to their members. This strike announcement comes only a day after the AMPTP strategy to “allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses” as “a cruel but necessary evil” was leaked to Deadline. In a fiery speech, Drescher responded, “You know what? Eventually the people break down the gates of Versailles and it’s over. And we’re at that moment right now.”

For the first time in 63 years, both the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America are out on the picket lines together after failed negotiations with their employers, the American Motion Picture and Television Producers. About 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members will join the more than 11,000 striking writers on the streets of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta for the largest Hollywood strike in decades. 

Hollywood has had relatively strong union membership in its workforce for a very long time. What is especially unique about the film and television industry is that most of the workers, both off and on camera, are unionized, but are actually represented by different unions even though they work side by side. Actors, writers and directors are all in different guilds. Camera operators and sound mixers are in their own guilds too. Makeup artists and script supervisors in different guilds still. And each of these unions negotiates with the same overarching producer entity, the AMPTP. 

The real fear for the AMPTP is that these unions will come together and start building cross-guild solidarity. This is what helped the 13 IATSE Hollywood Locals win their new Basic Agreement contract in October 2021 on the eve of an expired negotiating deadline after voting for their first strike authorization. SAG-AFTRA will now join the WGA on the streets against their common class enemy. 

Employing a collective bargaining strategy known as “pattern bargaining,” both SAG and WGA have been fighting for similar proposals over the last three months. These proposals include wage increases to keep up with the historic inflation rates seen since 2021, establish reasonable and qualitative residuals from online streaming projects where their work will never hit the movie theater, and existential protections against automation from groundbreaking artificial intelligence technology. 

Class struggle in Hollywood

WGA members have been on strike since May 2, 2023, and some workers in the industry have not been able to work all year. Production companies turned off the tap in late 2022 to prepare for these labor battles. Crews across the country have been struggling to make ends meet without industry work. The corporate media characterizes this as “strike fatigue,” and constantly comes out with narratives that blame the writers for striking at a time with such economic instability. 

AMPTP-owned corporate news sources, like Variety and Deadline, continue to criticize the guilds for their “radical proposals,” their inability to “prioritize their long list of demands,” or pit the union leadership against the rank and file by suggesting that the guilds are being led by a “militant minority” who wish to send their members to the picket line in a dire “economic climate.” These were almost literally the same talking points by the AMPTP in 2008 during a recession caused by the barons on Wall Street, the same investors supporting Hollywood’s streaming platforms today.  

The last time WGA went on strike in 2007 to 2008, the DGA reached an agreement six days into the WGA strike, which had a great effect on the WGA coming to an agreement after 100 days on the picket line. When film and television actors went on strike in 1980 where they fought for similar provisions: residuals for new markets, including video rental market and paid TV. The last WGA strike was also focused on adapting to the nascent online video streaming platforms. 

This time the fight is over residuals for the now-dominant streaming services, like Netflix, Disney+, HBO and others — which have outpaced primetime television and movie theater screenings. The workers claim their current contracts are becoming increasingly outdated with residuals only focused on theatrical screenings and ad revenue from primetime TV. Meanwhile, the AMPTP argues that residuals for their hit streaming shows doesn’t make sense because they’re not profitable. They made this same argument 15 years ago claiming their “new media” streaming projects weren’t profitable, and now they have taken over Hollywood. 

Artificial Intelligence

In many ways this struggle is the same as it has been for decades. Workers are constantly having to stay abreast of the changes in technology and protect themselves from the clever machinations of producers circumventing contractual obligations to exploit new markets to maximize profit. However, there is a new technology that has taken center stage in this bargaining cycle: artificial intelligence. 

With the public release of Open AI’s ChatGPT in November 2022, discussions around how AI will affect the future of work become much more alarming. ChatGPT is a learning language model, which means that it can basically generate new content based on the data that it is given. Writers and producers alike have figured out that it is extremely close to being able to outsource screenwriters to entirely computer-generated scripts. 

Similarly, AI-produced images and videos have hit the market in the past six months. Curious Refuge is a new filmmaking team in the United States that has been creating fake movie trailers using AI-generated faces of A-list actors all from their laptop. is a website that hosts AI-generated podcasts using convincing voices of talk-show host Joe Rogan and a deceased Steve Jobs. This type of mimicry is known by SAG actors as taking their “likeness.” Employers have every desire to automate labor because it helps them maximize profit. Protecting their “likeness” has become nothing less than an existential crisis for writers and actors. 

AI provisions are necessary in these new contracts partly because there is very little regulation on them in the marketplace. It is up to the unions to stay ahead of the curve and protect their members from this new onslaught of automation. Congress has been fumbling with how to regulate AI because, in the hands of the ruling class, these tools can severely cut down on labor costs and drive up their bottom line. 

There is clearly a fire burning in many workers in the United States. They are fed up with the weakening protections, broken promises by government officials, rising cost of living, and the disparity of wealth between the CEOs and everyone else. Union militancy is on the rise across the country. A recent Gallup poll showed that 71% of people in the United States support unions, the highest since 1965. 

It comes as a shock to nobody that the top executives of Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros, NBCUniversal, and Paramount have taken home millions of dollars more each year since the pandemic in 2020 even after they pushed through major layoffs across Hollywood. Now, workers are standing up and saying enough. With the actors now joining the writers on the picket line, the Hollywood strike has become even more of a key flashpoint in the struggle against corporate greed and exploitation.

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