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One for All
Rising together, collectively
Solidarity has been headline news this month, thanks to the Hollywood strike. When the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, voted to join forces with the Writer’s Guild for the first time since 1962, it brought unprecedented attention to collective action.
Most of us feel a deeper, more personal connection with the actors we watch onscreen than to the writers who work behind the scenes and whose names just scroll by in the credits. So thanks to the actors' strike, people have become more interested. And as a result, news coverage has increased.
SAG president Fran Drescher’s call-to-arms occurred at the exact moment of this increased attention and struck a surprisingly electrifying chord. We are simply not accustomed to union leaders firing up the crowd like the Nanny did, or to having their speeches go viral.
Drescher caught fire not only because she spoke truth to power but because her description of actors and writers getting gamed by studio executives who grab ever-larger shares of the profits resonated with people far beyond the world of entertainment.
Endless cost-cutting in the service of profit maximization to benefit those at the top has been a red hot issue for a while now. The additional existential threat posed by AI to actors and writers is something everyone can relate to as well. The upshot is that people below the most senior level in a range of industries are increasingly unable to earn a living wage or feel any measure of control over their futures. This has created widespread disengagement and resentment as people feel unrecognized and underpaid for their contributions.
The shoveling of profits ever-upward also feeds an increasingly grotesque sense of entitlement among those who, in some corner of their heart, must know that they are not 600% percent more valuable than the people who develop and make their products and services (in this case, movies and TV series). This entitlement was cartoonishly on display when a self-enriching studio executive described the slashing of the residuals paid to actors for successful series— shows that have enabled the studios to survive in an unstable, fast-changing business— as a “cruel but necessary evil.”
The flair and outsized drama of this strike are pure Hollywood but I believe the public’s fascination reflects something more: a yearning for the kind of solidarity that people taking collective action— in this case, writers and actors—experience and share. Until very recently, most of those who feel disempowered or disrespected at work have little recourse other than to either stuff their feelings and disengage (aka “quiet quitting”), or to walk away from jobs they once were thrilled to have.
The Hollywood strike resonates because huge numbers of people understand that this is a watershed moment in the history of how we work.
And one reason this strike is so compelling is that writers and actors have the means to push back against decisions that harm their livelihood and insult their dedication and skill. As members of established and powerful guilds, they are capable of taking collective action.
Guilds are similar to labor unions, but are organized around specific and highly professionalized skills. This is also true of some unions, but most tend to be organized based on sector rather than skill. The highly specialized skills required in technology, pharmaceuticals, health care and financial services seem suited to this kind of collective. Why not have a guild of physicians’ assistants or imaging technicians or financial analysts?
Whatever the form such organizations take, the Hollywood strike, along with negotiations to avert strikes as happened this week at UPS, dramatize the futility of trying to address inequities through individual action. Some form of organizing is required.
With the number of strikes in 2023— 199 in 307 locations— up 37% from 2021, it has become clear that people are asserting their rights to not have to choose between entitlement and disempowerment, between clawing their way to the top or accepting whatever gets dished out. Solidarity and collective action are indeed offering a path forward.
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