In the tumultuous year of 2023, labor strikes in the U.S. have taken center stage, highlighting the ongoing battle for workers’ rights and corporate accountability. Dubbed as “hot strike summer,” 2023 has 4 more months to go before ending but already has “177 work stoppages,” according to Bloomberg Law. The summer of 2023 witnessed the Writers Guild of America (WGA) initiating a historic strike, marking the most significant disruption to Hollywood’s film and television industry since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Their demands centered around achieving greater pay equality and privileges, a response to the burgeoning influence of streaming platforms. Two months later, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) joined the strike, targeting the same major studio productions and producers associated with the AMPTP. These strikes were not confined to Hollywood alone, as companies including UPS, Starbucks, Amazon, and various hotels also faced the prospect of their employees going on strike.
While strikes have garnered attention across various industries, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) brought a sense of déjà vu to Hollywood, having previously engaged in a high-impact 14-week strike back in 2007 that significantly reverberated through both the entertainment industry and its audience. Due to the nature of late-night shows where writers would produce their content daily, one host, Conan O’Brien, resorted to mindless antics like spinning his wedding ring to demonstrate the importance of writers in television. The primary reason for the WGA’s 2007-2008 strike was over “major disagreements over how to calculate DVD residuals,” bearing similarities to the current strike’s cause as well. Although new media such as Netflix was growing in terms of streaming content, they have not cemented themselves as a key player in the entertainment industry at the time. Regardless, the WGA knew that they needed to act and ensure that they were a part of the discussions before it was too late to do so. Promising shows began to lose traction and attention from audiences, films were forced to go into production with poorly written scripts, and launched the intense rise of reality programming.
By February 2008, the WGA strike ended with the ability for the WGA to negotiate over “writers’ contributions to new media and outlined residuals for the reuse of their work.” The president of WGA West, Meredith Stiehm, told the Washington Post about the critical role of the 2007-2008 strike: “If we had not won that—50 percent of our work right now is on streaming services and platforms. We wouldn’t have been covered for that.” The strike’s legacy was not all positive among the WGA’s members as many pointed out that the Directors’ Guild of America was the first union to settle with the AMPTP in January 2008, not the WGA. Writer Eric Tipton called it a “bitter but necessary sacrifice” while others were skeptical of the WGA’s conversations with the AMPTP. The Writers Guild of America’s 2007-2008 strike left an indelible mark on Hollywood, serving as a reminder of the pivotal role writers play in shaping the entertainment landscape and prompting a necessary dialogue that continues to shape the industry’s response to evolving media platforms.
With the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) and streaming becoming a vital part of the entertainment industry, the WGA found themselves back in the same position in 2007 before the strike. In their report “Writers Are Not Keeping Up,” the WGA outlined the reality of being a writer for Hollywood where their roles have been negatively impacted by the rise of streaming. The report states: “On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season… And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.” The data shown in the report demonstrated that the percentage of TV writers working for the Minimum Basic Agreement “increased from a third in 2013-2014 to nearly half of all writers in 2012-22.”
As streaming needs a constant influx of content to “attract and retain subscribers,” the importance of writers is more important than ever as “new series were ordered all the time,” increasing the number of jobs available to writers. However, the actual pay for writer-products has declined “4% over the past decade”—adjusted to “23% decline” with inflation—where the cost of living has been rising exponentially in major cities (“where these jobs tend to be”). Another issue that the WGA aims to resolve through the strike is the residual pay for shows on streaming platforms where writers are getting no pay for their contributions. For example, if a writer wrote an episode of Stranger Things and its popularity is unprecedented, where subscribers and revenue increase drastically, they would not get a share of that profit despite their contributions to the success of the show. Beyond the residuals, AI is the other significant challenge to the WGA’s livelihood as their rates are likely to reduce or diminish completely if studios resort to AI to write their movies and shows. And so, what the WGA could do is to “ensure that any studio that wants to do business with their writers will have ensure basic standards of human involvement and pay them a wage that keeps pace with the budgets and success of the studios hiring them.”
Sharon Block, professor of practice and executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School, gave additional insight on the strikes to Harvard Law. As an expert in labor and employment law, Block notes that the strike is “part of a growing wave of union activity in recent years, particularly among young people.” The ending of the WGA’s current strike has major implications for “labor’s strength moving forward,” depending on “other unions’ solidarity” as well. According to Block, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 did not anticipate the “technological changes that we’re having now” where it only states that “workers have a right to bargain over wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment.” Furthermore, several Supreme Court cases have defined the limits of union bargaining rights, explicitly excluding areas related to “managerial or entrepreneurial decisions.” This is not to say that they cannot bargain them, but rather they cannot force the employer to bargain over such areas since their jobs are no longer protected if they choose to strike “over those terms.” The WGA has experienced a multitude of shifts from network television to streaming platforms, prompting Block to say that the introduction of AI is not the first drastic change to Hollywood. Block furthers that the “union sees that it can’t take anything for granted, and that when [changes such as AI] come, they want to be ahead of them, unlike last time.”
At the same time, the conditions that launched for the WGA strike are not exclusive to Hollywood as unions have risen in popularity and “organizing in sectors” that were thought to be “unorganizable”—namely referring to companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and UPS. Block acknowledges this rise in popularity due to a variety of causes such as increasing economic disparity and the current state of the labor market. Throughout multiple decades, middle- and low-wage workers have been “feeling left behind, watching the top 1%, the top 10% pull away economically, corporate profits going up, and the incredible concentration of wealth and power at the top of the scale.” As for the labor market for the past years, it is characterized as the “tightest labor market we’ve had in a very long time,” allowing workers “some leverage.” Due to such conditions, Block notes that employers may be “more likely to take what workers want seriously and to listen” while workers are “somewhat less afraid of being fired for organizing.” Furthermore, if a worker can be assured of their potential job prospects due to the labor market, Block claims that this will help with their decision on whether to strike.
Despite the positive environments that allow for labor laws to change, Block expressed reservations about the labor industry. The U.S. appears to be inadequate in having a “labor law that did a better job of transmitting or transforming workers’ desire to be in a union into the ability to actually be in a union, and then into the ability to actually negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.” The current labor laws of the U.S. place the responsibility for workers to organize “workplace by workplace,” indicating that they cannot “organize a sector or an industry where they could have influence at scale.” And so, these labor law grants more power to employers to deter any form of organizing and to “interfere in the relationship between workers and their unions,” while facing “no penalties when employers violate labor law.” Even though labor has now been developed in various methods, the laws surrounding it have not been updated to catch up to the point in which “the disincentive to violate the law is very low.” Consequently, companies are more inclined to thwart labor organizing campaigns to the extent that they are willing to engage in illegal activities, viewing this as a necessary response to protect their interests.
Now, Hollywood is not the only one striking as there is increased public support for unions and additional worker leverage from low unemployment, calling forth for “higher wages to keep up with high inflation.” There are Starbucks “baristas, national park bus drivers, hotel housekeepers, lawyers, book sellers, locomotive plant workers” going on strike following the WGA strike. The Big Three Detroit automakers—a nickname for Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—narrowly avoided a strike where 150,000 automakers were set to participate if they did not address their demands (including a higher pay of “double-digit” increases). The U.S. was set to experience its largest strike in years where an estimated 340,000 UPS workers were set to strike in late July until UPS agreed to a “tentative agreement” where workers gained significant wage gains.
Characterized by “a perfect storm” by MIT professor of industrial relations Thomas Kochan, public support for unions and the current state of the labor market (where the unemployment rate is “hovering near five-decade lows”) give rise to the “difference in perception between workers and employers.” Due to the pandemic’s effects and inflation, workers are re-examining their “loss of income” while employers are considering the possibility of a recession and aim to be “as conservative as possible.” Bloomberg Law estimates that 323,000 workers “have already gone on strike,” making 2023 the “busiest year for strikes” and unions since 2000 (excluding the strikes of public-school teachers and government workers in 2018 and 2019). U.S. President Joe Biden’s desire to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” also emboldened unions, notably in the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). A day into his presidency, Biden had fired the NLRB’s General Counsel, Peter Robb, who had a reputation for advancing “pro-business and anti-labor” sentiments; Biden appointed pro-worker Jennifer Abruzzo in Robb’s place.
The aftermath of the pandemic saw employers engaged in fierce competition for workers, leading to a reduction in unemployment and a remarkable surge in wages, the likes of which hadn’t been witnessed in decades. However, these gains were swiftly eroded by a severe bout of inflation, which persisted until recently when the Federal Reserve took action to mitigate the rising costs of essentials like fuel, housing, and food. Regardless of these improvements, workers are still “struggling to make ends meet as the companies that they work for have raked in enormous profits.”
Even though there are growing numbers of strikes occurring in 2023, labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Nelson Lichtenstein, advises that we should not be “overstating the magnitude of this summer’s strikes” since only 10% of American workers are in a union. Regardless of the percentage of workers in a union, there is a shift in how the public view unions from how “employers discredited themselves during the pandemic.” Their conduct were not mindful as their “profits went way up” while workers were not being taken care of, prompting for a “delegitimization and loss of faith in big business.” 2023’s overall strikes have also indicated a particular change in how employers treat unions where unions formerly made concessions, but now are attempting to seize back “what they’ve lost over the years” and making new requests—“especially related to new technological developments and the rising costs of housing.”
Amid a post-pandemic resurgence in employment and wages, it is vital to acknowledge that the pursuit of equitable wages and working conditions remains an ongoing concern. Inflation looms as a potential threat, which could erode the progress made, underscoring the importance of continued vigilance in the pursuit of fair treatment for workers. The events of 2023, marked by a “perfect storm” of labor activism, prompt a reflection on the role of workers in society, the need for fair labor laws, and the imperative of recognizing the dignity of work. These strikes underscore that, regardless of the percentage of unionized workers, the call for justice and fairness in the workplace resonates strongly. Ultimately, these strikes are not solely about addressing past injustices but also about charting a course toward a more equitable and prosperous future for all workers.
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