Photo of Victor Chen smiling in a blue shirt in front of a column.
Victor Tan Chen, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology, studies economic inequality, labor movements and trends around unions in the U.S., where union support is rising while union membership is at an all-time low.  (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

How will the Hollywood strike end? VCU sociology professor and union expert shares what history tells us.

Streaming services and AI may be the new battlegrounds for actors, writers and studios, but echoes from the 1960 and 1980 picket lines are familiar and strong, says Victor Tan Chen.

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For the first time since 1960, actors and writers are simultaneously on strike against Hollywood studios. And with the rise of social media, we’re seeing celebrities sharing updates from the SAG-AFTRA and WGA picket lines this summer, bringing more visibility to unions on the whole.

For Victor Tan Chen, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, unions are rarely far from his mind. Chen is the author of “Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy,” which explores long-term unemployment and the history of American labor movements through the lens of the United Auto Workers.

“These recent strikes are more evidence that workers today have reached a breaking point with the leadership of huge corporations who use every excuse to hoard profits rather than sharing them with the people who do the day-to-day work,” said Chen, who studies economic inequality, labor movements and unions and who shared insights into last year’s threat of U.S. railroad strikes.

“Like with the rail strikes, workers in the entertainment industry are being squeezed and told that’s just the way things are, because of technological and market changes,” Chen said. “But collectively they have the power to push back and win their fair share — just like they did in their 1960 and 1980 strikes, which also revolved around industry shifts toward new media platforms.”

VCU News interviewed Chen about the working conditions that led to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA/WGA strike, how similar strikes have ended or been resolved and the impact labor movements like these have had for U.S. workers.

What led actors and writers to strike, and what do they hope to gain?

The WGA, the writers union, went on strike in May, and SAG-AFTRA, the group representing actors, followed them on the picket line two months later. There are a number of issues, but a key one is that existing contracts give workers a far worse deal when their content appears on streaming services rather than on broadcast or cable TV.

Take the amount of residual payments that creative talent receives whenever a show or movie is replayed. When it comes to replays on streaming services, the production companies have refused to pay anything near the residuals they pay for television — which means that veteran actors can receive literally pennies for multiple replays on a streaming service. Residuals are crucial sources of income for workers in this industry, given how uncertain and temporary their gigs can be. Likewise, writers aren’t covered by the same agreements that set a minimum standard of pay when they write for streaming services rather than television.

In these different areas, the studios have used the shift to streamed content as a pretext to claw back profits from workers. The unions want their standard arrangements to reflect the new reality in the industry around where money is being made, but even asking for that has been met with fierce opposition on the part of the studios.

Another key issue being negotiated is limits on the use of artificial intelligence to take away work. The writers union wants assurances that artificial intelligence systems like ChatGPT are only used as tools to help writers with scripts rather than as a means of replacing them. Actors are concerned about how studios use their digital likenesses, given that the technology now exists to generate entirely new content using an actor’s existing video and voice recordings. The union fears that companies will be able to dramatically reduce the cost of labor by getting actors — including extras who have no bargaining power on their own — to sign away their rights to their digital likenesses.

What has changed about the workforce – and about unions – since actors and writers were jointly on strike in 1960?

Back then, you were dealing with more unions and fewer production companies. The unions have merged, and there are more players on the production side, as huge global companies like Apple and Amazon have entered the content creation business.

That’s a problem for the unions because large corporations in particular have become very adept at crushing unions, given how weak U.S. labor law is. There’s a highly professionalized industry devoted to this very purpose, and large corporations routinely violate the law because they know the fines are just slaps on the wrist for them. Already, you hear news reports quoting studio sources about how they aren’t negotiating in good faith right now, but intend to wait until the fall when strikers run out of their savings and start losing their homes. It’s a really cynical strategy.

The proportion of American workers who are union members has fallen dramatically over the last several decades, and in 2022 it reached a record low of 10.1%. So the context is generally worse, but there has been some noteworthy momentum in labor activity in recent years, with labor gaining new footholds in hard-to-organize industries and unions winning concessions through strikes.

And these unions in the entertainment industry have key advantages: public sympathy and the widespread visibility of actors on the picket line. People are learning through social media about how raw a deal they are getting — the checks for pennies in residuals, for instance. For all the fabulously wealthy celebrities in the industry, there are many, many more struggling actors and writers whose inconsistent earnings mean that negotiating a better baseline is crucial. Just consider health insurance — only 13% of SAG-AFTRA’s members qualify for the union’s health plan because they don’t meet the $26,470 earnings threshold.

What impact did the 1960 strike have on the entertainment industry and on the U.S.? And what do you anticipate from this strike, based on what history tells us?

It’s interesting how these prominent strikes against the Hollywood studios unfolded at the start of seismic shifts in the media landscape. In 1960, it was about the rise of the relatively new medium of television. SAG was headed then by Ronald Reagan, who ironically as a U.S. president would wind up leading the policy drive to stamp out unions in this country. A key win for the unions in 1960 was residual payments, which the studios had fiercely resisted. So the 2023 strike is very much in that tradition of asking companies to share profits with the creative talent who actually make the content.

The 1960 strike also forced studios to set aside a portion of their profits to fund pensions and health care, and this continues to be one of the issues that union members are striking about six decades later — basic security for a very unstable line of work.

The 2023 strike has parallels with the 1980 actors strike, too, which occurred at the start of the industry shift to cable TV and home video. Back then, the unions were fighting for extending residual payments to cover these new forms of content. They got them, though not the share they’d demanded.

I think the same thing will end up happening when this strike finally ends. In spite of the happy face that the studios are putting on — with some even boasting about the millions they’re saving by not making content — the reality is that they are bleeding money as well as public goodwill. They have the technological edge for now, but I think if the workers on the picket line can hold out, they’ll win the payment deals that they have successfully extended in past periods of industry transition.

The more existential threat for them — for all workers, really — is artificial intelligence, which may drastically reduce the numbers of actors and writers needed. That’s a harder issue to address, given how quickly the technology is progressing, and it’ll take regulation at a higher level to ensure that workers don’t lose their livelihoods en masse.

NPR reported this year on what it called “the union paradox: near-record-high popularity but record-low participation.” What can you tell us about trends around unions and labor movements over the past 10 years or so?

The public response to these and other recent national strikes really illustrates this paradox. According to polls reported on earlier this month, the public seems to be on the side of the actors and writers rather than the studios, and overall support for unions in the last decade or so has risen substantially, with more than 70 % of Americans now approving of them — the highest level since the 1960s.

But actually forming a union is incredibly hard in the U.S. — much harder than it is in much of Europe or, for that matter, in Canada. Workers have to go through an onerous and lengthy election process that gives employers ample opportunities to pressure and intimidate their workforce. Companies can draw from the expertise of a vast industry of anti-union consultants, and the fines they pay for violating labor laws by retaliating against union members are often considered just another business cost. And a majority of U.S. states have passed right-to-work legislation that makes organizing a union even harder to do. All these factors account for the fact that U.S. union membership is at an incredibly low level today, especially when we compare the situation now to the middle of the last century, when a third of American workers were union members.

Until we get our elected officials to change federal and state laws and make organizing a union easier, I think this paradox of high union approval and low union membership will continue — contrary to the spirit of democracy and people’s fundamental right to organize for their collective benefit. Yet the string of concessions that SAG-AFTRA and WGA have obtained for their workers over the decades should remind us why unions are popular with the public: While like all organizations they have their problems, at the end of the day, unions are quite effective at raising workers' pay and benefits — which is why companies oppose them so viciously.