Strikes on the Silver Screen

Words by David Williams

David Williams is a member of the Monash Socialists.


It is hard to think of any strikes in recent years that have gotten as much coverage as the strikes happening in Hollywood right now. Since May, the Writers Guild of America (WAG) has been on strike, taking its 11,500 members out of massive productions. Without writers movies, TV series and talk shows stopped being able to run, the strikes have delayed if not halted production of projects from Disney, Warner Bros, Netflix and more. 


Margot Robbie proudly declared her support of the unions on the red carpet of the Barbie movie premier. Just hours later the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) declared that their around 160,000 members would go on strike, resulting in the cast of Oppenhiemer walking out of their premier. Now the hundred billion dollar US film industry has almost completely stopped.


So why the strikes? It is easy to think that nearly everyone in the film industry is highly paid, with perhaps the exception of a few extras and those who “didn’t make it”. However, the strikes have made it very clear that this isn’t the case. With a handful of exceptions, the bulk of those that make films and tv shows are poorly paid workers, put under a great deal of pressure to churn out content for theatres and streaming platforms as quickly as possible while the studios themselves rake in billions of dollars every year. Throughout the decades, this has caused a great deal of anger amongst Hollywood workers, but the rising cost of living has pushed them to breaking point. 


The advent of streaming platforms has been used to work around many of the gains of previous strikes by writers and actors. One key area of this is residuals, before residuals, anyone who worked on a movie or TV show would be paid whilst the movie was being made, and would stop being paid once work was done. This system worked very well for studios, they could pay workers a small amount and had the profits made at the box office all to themselves, the vast majority of actors and writers have to work second, even third, jobs outside of the industry, or move straight to the next job to make ends meet. 


A key win of the last joint writers and actors strike in the 60s, residuals forced studios to give those that worked on the movie or show a portion of the money made from box office sales, or the money paid by networks for the rights to play the show or movie on their channels. Streaming platforms have however worked around this, and pay a poultry sum in residuals, there is no shortage of actors showing how much they are being paid online: mere cents for shows bringing in millions. For writers particularly, they are hit especially hard by the quick turnaround time. To save cost, many writers are laid off as soon as the writing phase is over, meaning not only are they paid less, but they are employed for a shorter time and have less time to work. One product is rushed scripts that are unchanging throughout the process of the movie. But these short work periods have serious consequences for writers, the longer contracts meant they had access to health insurance, which is essential due to the privatisation of healthcare in the US. But shorter contracts mean that writers are regularly left without insurance whilst they are between jobs, a simple injury or illness can leave someone hundreds if not thousands of dollars out of pocket. However, even finding a new job within the industry is made more difficult by the use of non-compete agreements by streaming platforms, which prevent writers and actors from seeking work with competing streaming platforms.


But why is all of this the case? Because it is extremely profitable. People like co-CEOs of Netflix, Ted Sarandos and Greg Peters, aren’t getting a total pay of 40 and nearly 35 million dollars, respectively, this year alone, because of their dedication to screen craft. They make it through cost cutting, largely through layoffs and wage cutting. Disney, Netflix and others have seen their revenues increase by tens of billions of dollars a year thanks to the rise of streaming, which studio owners have eagerly pocketed. 


For Hollywood bosses, no length is too great to undermine the strike, from running production on partially finished scripts, to making anonymous statements about waiting until writers and actors are forced into homelessness before agreeing to negotiations. And you have absurd sights such as Disney CEO Bob Iger saying that writers and actors have unrealistic expectations. Iger gets a $27 million a year salary and made this statement from the Sun Valley Conference, a yearly conference/summer camp for media billionaires and politicians to talk about how to make more billions and ski, or whatever the hell absurdly rich people do. But the people that actually do all the work he profits from demanding a decent quality of living is “unrealistic”.


What the strikes have shown that even in Hollywood, class is everything. There are people, actors, writers, animators and all manner of technical roles, whose work actually makes the movies. Without that work, nothing gets made. And there are people who do none of the work, who contribute nothing to the process, but reap all the rewards on the basis that they had the money or position to own all the stuff used to make the movie. This is the case all over the world and just as in Hollywood, workers are paid a fraction of the value they produce while the capitalists of the world enjoy record profits. But when workers collectively withdraw their labour through strikes, all that work and those profits stop. No matter how long the CEOs sit behind their desks, not a single movie will be made without workers. For Disney alone, the strikes are holding up billions, if not tens of billions of dollars worth of movies.


These actors and writers have broadcast the power of strikes. All over the internet are actors and writers that people follow, who are on strike, talking about the greed of their bosses, their underhanded tactics and malice. People are being pushed to the left by their experiences on the picket line. So around the world, when people see their own boss screwing them over, perhaps they will connect the dots and will remember that time in Hollywood actors and writers organised into a union and went on strike.


So why should we pay attention to these strikes here in Australia? Hollywood is afterall on the other side of the world. Like the big production studios, companies in Australia are posting billions in profits, most recently the Commonwealth Bank, Coles, and Woolworths. Meanwhile, wages and living conditions have been going backwards for decades, and are being eroded rapidly by the cost of living crisis. These strikes show that this is exactly the kind of working class action we need in Australia. 


In the cost of living crisis, left-wing politics that look to the working class are essential. If we want to fight for a better quality of life for working class people, we have to challenge the stagnant politics of Labor. While workers struggle, Labor is only looking to bail out the ultra wealthy and throw hundreds of billions into the military. What we ultimately need is an alternative to capitalism, to people working for crumbs while the billionaires compete for the title of wealthiest human being to have ever existed. We need more socialists, to build a radical working class movement and get rid of this system altogether. As an added bonus, without executives fixated on profit constantly getting in the way, writers and actors can spend time on movies and shows they want to make, film can be a medium for expression rather than a money making machine.



David Williams

The author David Williams

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