By Abayomi Azikiwe
Striking members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Announcers (SAG-AFTRA) along with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), have created a crisis for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPATP), which represents the owners and executives of the major studios in the United States.
These industrial actions are jeopardizing the revenue and profits of the large studios and networks which will result in the postponement and cancellation of programs and films.
As the majority of those working in these sectors of the industry continue to experience declining pay and rising job insecurity, the studios have stiffened their resolve to severely weaken the unions. If the intransigence of the owners in regard to the more than two months-long WGA strike provides any indication, the SAG-AFTRA work stoppage could last for a long time.
Since the beginning of the WGA strike on May 2, the corporate leaders and union representatives have not held any negotiations. The screen actors and announcers joined the picket lines with the WGA on July 14 after the owners refused to make any offers to the union’s bargaining teams which could reverse the steadily declining standard of living for the workers.
Since the walk out by the SAG-AFTRA, the corporate executives have attempted to portray those on strike as being incorrigible with expectations that are “unrealistic.” They have asserted through the corporate news networks that the unions are not taking into consideration the changes which have taken place over the last decade.
However, what the AMPATP does not say is that the salaries and compensation for executives are consistently rising where many are earning tens of millions of dollars annually. The enormous growth in corporate salaries and bonuses reflect the prevailing practices within the movie and television industry. Union leaders of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA claim that the studios have expressed only disrespect and contempt for the concerns of the workers.
Countering the Misinformation of the Bosses
Union leaders have sought to dispel the myths that members of their bargaining units are privileged and earn far more money than the average worker in the U.S. This is of course true for high profile and well-paid actors and screenwriters working on blockbuster films which cost tens to hundreds of millions to produce.
Nonetheless, many union members interviewed on the picket lines indicate that they are taking home far less than workers employed in other fields. The declining wages are due in part to the expanding popularity of streaming platforms leaving workers unable to receive their owed residuals.
Other changes in the operations of the media business include far fewer episodes per season, the elimination of payments for auditions which are often done online in the aftermath of the pandemic as well as earning thresholds for health insurance eligibility.
SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said in a press statement on the first day of the strike that:
“It came with great sadness that we came to this crossroads. But we had no choice. We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us. I cannot believe it, quite frankly. How far apart we are on so many things. How they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right while giving hundreds and millions of dollars to their CEOS. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history at this very moment.”
The attitudes of the studios are mirrored throughout the capitalist system in the U.S. and internationally. The corporate executives, owners and shareholders are demanding more concessions from employees to enhance their profit-making capacity.
Gains won by the working class and their unions during monumental struggles from the late 19th century to the present are under assault from the owners supported by local, state and federal governments. Several of the high-profile actors and screenwriters have voiced their support for the strike and are being seen walking the picket lines. Actors such as Susan Sarandon and Emily Blunt realize that despite their successes, the changes being instituted by the industry owners are threats to the profession as a whole.
As long as the strike continues, members of the unions are not allowed to promote the films in which they appeared. The cast of “Oppenheimer” were in Britain for the official premiere of the film. They refused to participate in the ceremonies and returned to the U.S. to stand in solidarity with the striking union membership.
Drescher continued to emphasize the importance of the strike during this important period in history, noting:
“We stand in solidarity in unprecedented unity. Our union and our sister unions and the unions around the world are standing by us as well as other labor unions. Because at some point, the jig is up. You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized and disrespected and dishonored. The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, AI. This is a moment of history that is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business, who cares more about Wall Street than you and your family.”
Artificial Intelligence is of utmost concern to the striking unions due to the potential for the owners and executives to further the level of already existing exploitation. The unfair use of individual images and voices in order to create new productions absent any contractual arrangements with the subjects will inevitably result in even deeper declines in salaries and other forms of compensation for the union membership.
SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said of the controversy surrounding the implementation of AI in the entertainment industry:
“The companies refuse to recognize that you can’t expect people to sign over their name, image, likeness and voice, their persona to some corporate conglomerate with no right to ever say what they’re going to do with it in the future. That is not going to happen, we are not going to agree to terms like that, so the companies have to move in our direction and come up with some reasonable agreement. We didn’t come into this negotiation saying ‘Let’s ban AI’,”. We came into this negotiation saying that AI has to be done in a way that respects actors, respects their human rights to their own bodies, voice, image and likeness. Nothing less than that is going to be acceptable.”
Economic Impact of an Extended Strike in the Film and Television Industry
Members of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA say they are prepared for the long haul. They realize that the studios are out to break the will of the unions to fight for their economic rights.
Withholding the labor power of the writers and actors will disrupt the functioning of the studios and other businesses which service the entertainment industry. Advertising revenues from film and television could decline with the postponement of movie releases and weekly programs.
With the current level of inflation in the U.S., union members will be hard pressed to make rent and mortgage payments in addition to transportation, energy and food expenses. The unions have established funds which can provide aid to striking workers. However, it is highly unlikely that these strike funds will meet the entire needs of the union members.
Consequently, a prolonged strike by SAG-AFTRA and WGA will have a ripple effect in the broader economy particularly in the Los Angeles and New York areas. Nonetheless, the unions recognize that the alternative to the strike would mean a complete capitulation to the industry executives and owners which would wipe out tens of thousands of jobs.