Recent events in Hollywood have driven a surge in awareness of labor issues in America. When 11,500 film and television writers represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike in May of this year, it pulled a blindfold from the eyes of average Americans who otherwise would remain apathetic to the state of organized labor. Beloved productions like “The Last of Us” or “Stranger Things” being cancelled or delayed due to the strike gave general audiences a rude awakening. To some, this strike only came as an annoyance, but to others, it has been eye-opening. Behind the media we consume are thousands of writers who are overworked, underpaid and who live under the precarious prospect of being replaced by Artificial Intelligence.
The poor labor conditions of Hollywood have only led to more organizing, with the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), a union representing actors and performers across America, announcing its own participation in the strike two months later. Before long, popular Hollywood celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Bob Odenkirk began voicing their support for those on strike.
At a SAG-AFTRA rally, “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston gave an impassioned speech directed at Disney CEO Bob Iger: “We’ve got a message for Mr. Iger: I know, sir, that you look at things through a different lens. We don’t expect you to understand who we are. But we ask you to hear us, and beyond that to listen to us when we tell you we will not be having our jobs taken away and given to robots. We will not have you take away our right to work and earn a decent living. And lastly, and most importantly, we will not allow you to take away our dignity!”
According to the WGA, “Median weekly writer–producer pay has declined 4% over the last decade. Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%.” Despite this, the profits of the major entertainment corporations have remained high over that timeframe.
USAFacts.org states union membership among American workers has been on a steady decline since the 1980s, with the percentage of workers with a union membership falling from 20.1% to 10.1% between 1983 and 2022. The concept of workers organizing to bargain for better working conditions has gone out of favor in recent decades in the midst of globalization and union-busting by corporations. In spite of this, the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike has turned unionization into a grander spectacle than it has been in a long time. And seeing as a majority of Americans express support for those on strike, according to Deadline, it seems that seeing actors and celebrities give their militant support to Hollywood workers has worked to raise awareness.
Writers and actors going on strike have inspired numerous other categories of workers in the entertainment industry to organize. Just last week, in a historic first, Visual Effects (VFX) Artists working for Marvel Studios voted to unionize under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), a North American labor union which represents 168,000 workers in entertainment according to their website. Voting was held for employees between Aug. 21–Sept. 11 with all voting unanimously in favor of unionizing, making them the first crew of VFX artists to be unionized in a profession that has only existed for a few decades. The significance of this vote cannot be understated, as it has the potential to set a precedent for other VFX workers working in the industry.
Sarah Kazuko Chow, a VFX Coordinator at Marvel, told IATSE, “I grew up dreaming of working on Marvel films, so when I started my first job at Marvel, I felt like I couldn’t complain about the unpaid overtime, the lack of meal breaks and the incredible pressure put on VFX teams to meet deadlines because I was just supposed to be grateful to be here at all. But the reality is that every worker deserves rights, and joining IATSE means we don’t have to choose between the job we love and having identities outside of our work.”
Walt Disney VFX workers have recently filed a request for a union vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a government entity responsible for mediating disputes between corporations and workers, although the final vote will not be seen until Oct. 2. This follows over 80% of Walt Disney Pictures crewmembers expressing a desire to unionize according to IATSE. If they vote to unionize, it will make them the second VFX crew in history to have collective bargaining power, and it will illustrate the power that recent Hollywood strikes have had.
In yet another recent victory for labor, a new rule by the NLRB could make it easier for workers (e.g., Disney VFX workers) to vote on a union without interference. The new rule, announced on Aug. 25, is the following: if a corporation and its workers agree to hold a vote on a union, and the corporation proceeds to engage in unfair labor practices during the voting process, the NLRB has the right to cease the vote and instantly declare a union by default. This rule is a particularly valuable safeguard for Disney employees, as the company has been criticized for its poor working conditions. Such a rule has the potential to guarantee workers in the entertainment industry and beyond a fair and democratic chance at forming a union.
These recent events should serve as a crucial reminder to film and television audiences: when you see a movie, pause and appreciate the hard work that studio employees put into making it. It’s time to consider what those workers go through to give you a nice weekend movie-going experience with your friends; if you get to enjoy the product of their talent and hard work, shouldn’t they get a chance to bargain with their employer? To not be overworked? When we, as viewers and audiences, watch a Marvel film, a Disney film or a film by any major studio, we should be more keen to know about who produced the media we enjoy and how they’re being treated. They are always seeking ways to improve their material situation, just like the rest of us. Maybe there is good reason to be optimistic, because concurrent to these victories for workers in the entertainment industry, approval of labor unions in America is at its highest rate since 1965 according to a Gallup poll.
Josh Czaja is a first-year Political Science major. JC1029473@wcupa.edu