As an artist, what is fair compensation for your work? When do you get compensated? Do you wonder if the contracts you sign will, in the future, protect or restrict you as an artist? And what happens when new technologies complicate your career or livelihood?
For students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and other art-based universities across the United States, these questions come up constantly in classrooms and among peers — and they’re also being debated across the entertainment industry with new unionization efforts and subsequent strikes. “How Striking” is a column that seeks to explore these questions and inform the SAIC community on the labor and employment side of the entertainment industry. This first article provides an overview of what has been occurring in the summer of 2023 in regard to entertainment labor strikes.
The Writers Started It
At midnight on May 2, 2023, the Writers Guild of America officially went on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the trade association that represents over 350 television and film production companies including Sony, Disney, Netflix, Paramount, etc. The strike came as a result of six weeks of failed negotiations to produce an agreement between the WGA and the AMPTP before their contract expired.
This was the strike heard around the entertainment world, so to speak. It kicked off what news reports, creators, and social media users are now referring to as the “summer of strikes.” Ryan Ken, a former F News editor, is a writer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” Ken has been encouraged by the solidarity they’ve experienced among their peers.
“I have had some challenging jobs, some exploitation issues in the past. And what feels meaningfully different is being in solidarity with so many people,” said Ken. “Feeling like it’s not just one person but thousands of us is actually something that’s been recharging and clarifying too.”
The WGA strike is in large part due to the shift in the film and TV industry toward streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix and away from traditional broadcast television and theatrical releases. When technology develops, the argument over what constitutes fair residual payments and working conditions for screenwriters often arises. For example, in 1985, the WGA went on strike for two weeks over residuals for home video sales.
Ken went on to say, “Sometimes the only thing standing between you and a certain type of exploitation is the decision to withhold your labor.”
Residuals are a complicated debate. The way the studios view it, TV shows that otherwise would not be financially successful get a second life when they’re put on streaming services, so writers are getting income they otherwise would not be. This, along with the increase in the number of projects being greenlit and produced, is being held up as proof that writers are already benefiting from streaming. However, in streaming, residuals are paid at a flat rate, instead of the broadcast model, in which payments increase with each reuse.
As streaming becomes more dominant, it isn’t just residuals that are up for debate, but how many writers are hired for writers’ rooms on TV shows and how many weeks out of the year writers can expect to be working for a given show. Mini rooms have only a few writers, and the writers are only on payroll and working on a short-term basis, turning the writers on these shows into gig workers who earn union-guaranteed minimum rates. The WGA calls for guaranteeing minimums for both the number of writers and weeks of work.
Healthcare and pensions are another aspect of the demands the WGA is making, hoping to achieve individual healthcare and pension contributions from the studios for each member of a given show’s writing staff.
Streaming is not the only change in technology that has opened new debates. WGA is also hoping to regulate the use of AI in screenwriting rooms to use it as a tool and not a replacement for human writers, whereas the AMPTP is offering “annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”
The Actors Acted Accordingly
On July 14, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists officially went on strike against the AMPTP after four weeks of negotiations failed and their contract expired.
In a message to guild members the night before striking, SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher wrote, “The AMPTP has refused to acknowledge that enormous shifts in the industry and economy have had a detrimental impact on those who perform labor for the studios.”
This is the first time since 1960 that the screenwriters and actors have conducted a joint walkout. In 1960, the screen actors fought for residual payments for films sold to TV networks while the screenwriters demanded better compensation in residuals for TV reruns of their work and that studios pay into health and pension funds.
Ken said the WGA strike had a domino effect.
“I hope not just that we are in a position where we get what we want, but that more workers are in a position to get what they deserve. I’m hoping it’s part of an awakening of a class consciousness and a labor consciousness moving forward,” Ken said.
Today, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are demanding increased residual compensation once more. Amidst the SAG-AFTRA strike, a number of actors have taken to X (formerly Twitter) and are now publicly sharing the amounts they have been making from streaming residuals under the hashtag #postyourpay. One such post from Jana Schmieding, known for playing Bev in the television show “Reservation Dogs.” Schmieding tweeted, “I pull in $.03 each quarter for UNLIMITED worldwide streams on fx/hulu/DISNEY,” along with a screenshot of her payment.
SAG-AFTRA is concerned about AI, too. Their concern lies in AI being used to replicate likenesses, voices, and performances of union members without permission or authorization. The AMPTP released a statement on July 17 listing alleged negotiation terms they say the SAG-AFTRA negotiators walked away from in favor of a strike including a “groundbreaking AI proposal.
Some productions have been given “interim-agreements” to continue work during the strike. These mostly independent productions are required to agree to all terms SAG-AFTRA proposed at the last negotiation with the AMPTP. The WGA has not allowed similar agreements, but SAG-AFTRA adjusted their interim-agreements to not be given to any productions that are not covered by a WGA contract.
The Directors Went in a Different Direction
The Writers Guild and the Actors Guild have a directorial counterpart in the form of the Directors’ Guild of America. Amidst the writers’ strike, the DGA was, as of June 3, able to reach a tentative agreement with the AMPTP. The agreement was then ratified with 87 percent of DGA guild members voting in favor of the new three-year collective bargaining contract.
The deal between the DGA and the AMPTP includes, but is not limited to, an increase in wages and benefits for directors, an increase in foreign residuals, hiring dedicated safety supervisors, and transparency in residual reporting. And notably, the deal also may set the stage for how AI may be treated across the silos of the film and television industry as the agreement has given the DGA confirmation that, “generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members.”
The DGA has been supportive of the WGA’s demand for better working conditions, even on their own website, writing, “Together, we will secure a more vibrant, sustainable, and thriving future for our industry.” That being said, the DGA and the WGA have disagreed on what counts as “crossing the picket line” for individuals who are members of both guilds.
SAG-AFTRA and the WGA congratulated the DGA on their deal with the AMPTP, but neither guild is seeking to follow the pattern the DGA has set up or have their bargaining be reliant on the bargaining of the other guild(s).
Facing the Future
Artists, actors, filmmakers, writers — none of them exist in a vacuum. To make a film or a television show inherently requires a lot of different forms of labor. That explains why there are so many guilds going on strike and unionizing.
It’s unclear how long the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes will continue or what sort of deals will be reached with the AMPTP. One anonymous studio executive told Deadline Hollywood, “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” The AMPTP is refuting this claim.
At this point, the best we can do is wait and see how the stories of both SAG-AFTRA and the WGA progress. The previous writers’ strike in 2007/2008 lasted 100 days — a number the current WGA strike has now surpassed. The longest strike in the history of the guild was in 1988 lasting 153 days.
Updating SAG-AFTRA guild members on Aug.9, Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland wrote, “We find ourselves on the front lines of a global labor movement. We are not alone. There are millions of workers across the nation and around the world fighting similar battles against corporate greed who are standing with us in solidarity.”
This new wave of labor movements, especially within the entertainment industry, has opened doors for others to consider and seek unionization. At the end of July, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union representing 1,500 stagehands and other backstage workers on Broadway, was able to avoid striking and reach a deal with their management. Additionally, Visual Effects artists who work for Marvel Studios and have been speaking out against the “toxic” work environment at Marvel, filed for a union election.
More and more creative industries are moving to unionization, as well as a growing number of student unions forming across the country. Unionization has been a hot topic on the SAIC campus over the last couple years as staff at the museums and school as well as non-tenure-track faculty have unionized as the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United.
As students, we are going to be part of creative teams and projects, both on the amateur and professional level. By understanding what’s going on in Hollywood, we can learn how to make our own demands about fair labor practices and compensation.