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Stories on Strike
Writers are on strike. Actors are on strike. Starbucks workers, hotel workers, academics are on strike. Even employees at Waffle House, beacon of hope and home of the unofficial Waffle House index used by FEMA to measure the impact of a disaster, are on strike. 340,000 UPS workers are heading towards a strike at the end of this month if there is no agreement on a contract.
Across the country, workers are fed up.
The most ubiquitous of these strikes are the writers and actors, or the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, respectively. Filming, movie premieres, fan conventions - all of it brought to a stand still as writers and actors take to the streets to protest their working conditions. Pay is, of course, an issue in contract negotiations, as is AI and streaming technology, benefits and health insurance, and working conditions. At their heart, however, these strikes are about the same issues as all strikes - how do we value labor, and how do we distribute its benefits.
If a Hollywood strike feels like it should be different, that’s only because there is a glittering facade that obscures reality. The actors whose names and faces you know make up a small part of the work that goes into making movies and television. Of the members of the actors’ union, only 13% make enough to qualify for health insurance annually. That means 87% are not meeting the $26,000 earnings threshold needed to get coverage. Writers also face increasing precarity, working for less pay and fewer weeks. Alex O’Keefe, writer for The Bear, an award winning zeitgeist of a show on Hulu, went to the ceremony to receive his WGA award for his work on it with a negative bank balance. And while studios and executives claim that their proposals were reasonable, and that striking workers are selfishly hurting an industry made up of support staff, that same staff is revealing that huge companies like Disney lay off support staff over the holidays so they don’t have to pay them.
Meanwhile, streaming companies and networks are raking in record profits. Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, makes $27 million a year. Disney brought in almost $87 billion in revenue last year. The pay increases writers are asking for amount to less than 0.1% of revenue from Disney. In fact, the increases writers are asking for amount to less than 0.3% of revenue from any of the major streaming platforms. There is something viscerally galling about a CEO claiming strikers’ demands are unrealistic when they are personally making tens of millions of dollars, and their companies are bringing in billions. Or when headlines talk about the economic impact of a Teamsters strike when June 2023 was the hottest month on record since 1850 and UPS drivers don’t have A/C in their trucks. Or when Starbucks would rather close down locations rather than engage with their unionized employees.
In the United States billionaires are a third richer than they were before the pandemic, and the number of billionaires has increased by 60% in the last decade. Meanwhile, I keep thinking about how I’m going to pay my student loans when they come back this fall, worrying it like a loose tooth every time I check my budget app or my bank account. And I’m one of the lucky ones.
You cannot make a TV show without writers, without background actors and production assistants and janitors and technicians. Every day millions of Americans sit down in front of their TVs to watch favorite shows and new shows and old movies and movies they’ve never seen. Every day we pick up books to read, open news articles on our phones, stop into coffee shops on our way to work, make hotel reservations for business trips and vacations and weddings and funerals. CEOs might stay at higher end hotels, might drink more expensive coffee, drive in fancier cars, but they do the same things we do. They put in a day’s work, and they get paid for it, and they spend that money in places where other people work. And every day the people who make their coffee, who write and act in the TV shows they show on their networks, who clean their hotel rooms and drive their cars and take care of their children worry about how they are going to pay their student loans, pay their rent, buy groceries. And at every turn, executives do not see themselves in community with the workers who make the world run around them. They see them as lines on a balance sheet.
No wonder workers are terrified of AI. If companies choose a computer to do script edits, to fill in a background character, edit a scene, workers lose their leverage to fight for living wages and healthy working conditions. In an economic system where so much is tied to employment, from health care and retirement savings to basic human rights like shelter and food to your self worth and social capital, any new technology, regulation, or disruption is a threat to your livelihood and your sense of self. In an economic system where our lives depend on our jobs, cost cutting is often existential.
And while in any strike the most important consideration is the workers themselves and their demands, whether they are truck drivers or waitresses or hotel workers or baristas, it’s worth noting that the rest of us lose something too.
I believe in the power of stories, that they are a mechanism for understanding ourselves and each other and the world around us. Television and movies are there to entertain us, but they also reflect our world and help us shape it. And while there may be something important to learn in how computers understand humanity, and what they do with what we give them, that is not more important than the stories we tell about ourselves, the way we understand and interpret the world around us, whose stories we decide to tell and how we decide to tell them. And it is certainly not more important than the people who make stories, who write and act and direct them, who build the sets, and feed the staff, and sweep the stage so that we can continue to shape and share ourselves and our world. Because each one of those people is a story, each a universe unto themselves.
I will never understand how anyone can listen to another person’s struggles to feed their family, to pay for school, to get a job, to get through the day without being belittled or bullied, and not want to change it, let alone those who make millions in a year responding to those for whom they are responsible. But we live in community with them, and we have the power to disrupt their lives if little else, by refusing to do the work that brings in their millions. And so I stand with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA and United Here Local 11 and the Teamsters and workers on strike all across the country. And I hope you do too.