A lifetime ago (actually, in the 1990s and early 2000s), I worked as a labor and employment attorney for a series of Hollywood studios. Much of the work involves negotiating with labor negotiators at other studios to negotiate deals with the dizzying array of unions that make TV shows and movies, including SAG-AFTRA (actors), WGA (writers) and Teamsters (drivers). IATSE (Crew) and DGA (Directors). So, it is painful to see the writers’ union strike drag on, knowing that all of it is affecting the livelihood of thousands of people and now only an actors’ strike. With both unions out, the rest of the production is still on hold.
There was a ray of hope this past Tuesday. Following a series of calls from studio executives, the parties brought in a federal arbitrator to negotiate the actors’ contract. Variety reported: “In addition to executives discussing efforts to bring in a federal mediator, talent agency chiefs … reached out to SAG-AFTRA leaders in recent days to offer help with a second Hollywood job stoppage this summer.” However, by leaking word of their involvement before the union was notified, studio executives managed to further anger the actors.
It was reassuring to see some executives showing interest in negotiations, with both unions fearing the studios would want to wait them out. The studios declined, an anonymous source told Deadline: “The end game is to let things drag on until union members lose their apartments and lose their homes.”
This type of talk reflects how the dynamics of business have changed over the past 15 years or so. The large companies that dominate the industry have become much larger through mergers and consolidations (eg, Disney bought Fox; Comcast swallowed Universal). Moreover, big tech companies like Apple, Netflix, and Amazon (whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post) — now making TV and movies — sit at the bargaining table.
Alexandra Petri: It’s okay. We don’t need human actors.
At one time, studios were forced to divest themselves of movie theaters, claiming they were vertical monopolies. That is now ancient history.
For these conglomerates, the production of entertainment/content may be a sliver of their overall business. Apple is a consumer-products giant; Amazon is a retail giant. Comcast is one of the largest multinational telecommunication companies in the country. That’s created a massive imbalance in bargaining power, and problems for workers — writers, actors, and others — who fear these giant companies have the capacity to wait on them.
If politicians had taken a tougher stance years ago on market consolidation and vertical monopolies (remember, Apple makes computers and cellphones, Apple TV makes content) and subjected tech companies to reasonable regulation, consumers and workers would be in a different situation. Now, exhausted writers and actors are feeling the brunt of the neglect from both political parties. If some banks are “too big to fail,” these companies are “too big to fail.”
In truth, unless you’re in the room with the people discussing it, and don’t have access to the same data, it’s pretty hard to determine which part needs a reality check, yet the studios have taken the unusual step of releasing their final offering. SAG-AFTRA, on its face, appears quite liberal and specifically addresses artificial intelligence. However, I know enough from that room over the years, both sides after days of discussions and suggestions Think about it The other is being irresponsible.
Of course, the big issues — including AI use, staffing for writers, and streaming debris — will look very different depending on which side of the table you’re sitting on. For companies, the ability to eliminate costs (ie, eliminate workers), unfettered access to new technology, and constant pressure to keep stock prices high are critical concerns. The lack of reliable revenue from new streaming businesses (many of which are reporting losses) is creating a frenzy to cut costs, including labor. The studios claim that a radical SAG-AFTRA faction has made progress impossible, and that actors are expressing frustration with the refusal to prioritize items on their long list of demands.
The perspective of actors and writers is different. Their needs are driven by the need for a decent standard of living in expensive Southern California and opportunities to have a continued presence in their creative work. They feel time is running out as AI improves by leaps and bounds. (When the contracts finally expired, the pandemic was raging; unions are now eager to understand industry trends and advances in AI, with some demands regulated.)
If you work in any other industry, it’s tempting to see Hollywood “genius” as spoiled and privileged. However, most of the union members are not mega-salaried stars. Their problems are no different from those of ordinary workers.
Megan McCardle: The Hollywood Writers’ Strike Will Have a Lasting Impact
In tracking the rise of job stops in Southern California, The New York Times recently reported that teachers and school workers, dock workers and hotel workers — as well as traveling actors and writers — all face the “intolerable cost of living in Southern California.” The struggle for living wages will play out on picket lines across the region. “It’s not just actors and writers whose jobs are threatened by the rise of artificial intelligence and the gig economy.”
Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Times: “There is a new analogy among retail clerks who are told to come in every other day. 3 to 7 pm Goodbye to the screenwriter who quickly offers to write seven episodes.
Faced with giant corporations determined to show huge profits every quarter, writers and actors have wallowing support. And that has a warning for the rest of the American workforce.