Hollywood Executives Bring Industry to Halt Rather Than Pay Workers a Fair Price

Art by Nick Rooney

Hollywood has come to a standstill this summer as actors join their writer colleagues on the picket line. The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) announced that it would be on strike starting July 14, 2023, over negotiations breaking down with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents most of the major studios in the film and television industry. That same body failed to negotiate in good faith with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has been on strike since May 2, 2023. Together, writers and actors represent the majority of creative talent in the most influential film industry in the world.

Even before the SAG-AFTRA strike, labor activity had been surging across the board. Axios tallied the number of striking workers from January to May every year since 2021 and found that by the end of May 2023, there were 119,000 striking workers in the United States—far more than the number on strike during the same period in the previous two years.

Since May, the number of striking workers has surged even higher as 15,000 hotel workers employed by about 60 hotels in Los Angeles went on strike. This was quickly followed by SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 actors launching their strike, and coming on their heels was the announcement that 340,000 UPS workers could be going on a nationwide strike in August in what would be “the largest strike against a single employer in U.S. history.”

Hollywood’s rank and file joins a phenomenon that has been dubbed #HotLaborSummer, a moment when workers in industries across the nation are making themselves heard about poor working conditions and low pay. Already, production on television shows has halted with the writers’ strike. Viewers anticipating the return of their favorite TV shows in September will likely be waiting a while. As highly anticipated summer movies like “Barbie” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” hit theaters, actors will not attend press junkets, San Diego Comic Con, or any other publicity-related events to promote their projects. The Emmy Awards Show will either be empty of actors and writers or have to be postponed altogether.

In spite of the power they wield in numbers, actors and writers are facing off against moneyed interests that are so flush with cash and other projects that they can afford to wait out the workers. A shocking report in Deadline on how AMPTP plans to drag its feet on negotiating with writers suggests that the same could be in store for actors: “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” a studio executive told Deadline. Acknowledging the cold-as-ice approach, several other sources reiterated the statement. One insider called it “a cruel but necessary evil.” If the strike were an on-screen plot, AMPTP executives would be the undisputed villains.

Unlike a potential UPS strike, which could economically devastate the company within days and cost the entire U.S. economy more than $7 billion over 10 days, Hollywood studios feel they can dig in their heels. According to the Deadline report, “as network schedules shift to unscripted shows and streamers buy up foreign content, the studios and streamers have been saving money on shuttered productions and cost-cutting.”

Filmmaker Boots Riley, whose new “anti-capitalist” streaming series “I’m a Virgo” has garnered serious accolades, called it a “union-busting tactic” on Twitter and added, “they want 2break [sic] us.” He told the Hollywood Reporter that the studios are “trying to put forward… a message that you’re not going to be able to have a say in how we do things.”

Indeed, that’s precisely what the Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger seemed to be saying when he claimed that the actors on strike “have to be realistic about the business environment and what this business can deliver.” Iger and his fellow entertainment industry executives appear to be claiming that it’s simply impossible for companies like Disney to continue to remain viable and pay its writers and actors what they want.

But, consider the shocking disparity in pay between rank-and-file workers and their bosses. Actor Kendrick Sampson, who is known for his work on “The Vampire Diaries” and “Insecure,” and who is a common fixture at Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles, illustrated on his Instagram page just how poorly he is compensated in residuals, or royalty payments—a major point of contention in negotiations with AMPTP. From the 50 residual checks he opened, he counted a grand total of only $86 in residual payments. “This is why we strike,” explained Sampson.

Meanwhile, Disney CEO Iger recently spent $7 million in renovations alone on his lavish $33 million Los Angeles mansion. Forbes reported in 2019 that he was worth about $690 million—a figure so unimaginably large that he could afford to work for free and would never want for anything. In spite of this, he siphons off $27 million a year in compensation to run Disney.

What’s most potentially powerful about the actors’ strike is the narrative force it wields across the country and the world. Movies and television shows influence our thinking on so many social issues. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, actors are loved and lauded. Now, they’re under attack from greedy millionaires and billionaires.

“Abbott Elementary” star Sheryl Lee Ralph, a veteran, award-winning actor, explained it in plain terms: “We’re fighting for our art… We’re fighting for what we love, and what we know people love. We’re not big million-dollar companies. No, we’re people, and we want to enjoy what we do, and we want to make a living at it. That’s what this is about.”

The actors’ decision to strike could spark interest in labor issues and in the oppositional dynamic between bosses and workers that Ralph articulated. If our favorite movie stars are on a picket line demanding better pay and fairer working conditions just so they can survive doing what they love to do, it could have a ripple effect, inspiring others to make similar demands of their own employers.

In contrast to Ralph, AMPTP sounds heartless, responding to the SAG-AFTRA strike in a statement, saying, “The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.” There was no mention of the financial hardship that AMPTP has put union members through, as industry executives deflect blame on everyone but themselves, casting beloved actors as the villains.

Iger lamented that striking actors “are adding to a set of challenges that this business is already facing, that is quite frankly, very disruptive.” But disruption is precisely the point. If it were convenient, a worker strike would affect nothing.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates.