Writers and performers for TV and film across the United States are on strike. They are fighting for their livelihood and industry futures in a double crisis of inflation and new tech disruption.
Angry picket lines in Los Angeles, New York, and and elsewhere, have disrupted or closed major productions. International celebrities have refused to work, alongside the ranks of jobbing writers and performers who struggle to get by.
Pay is the first demand. Screenwriters’ union WGA is fighting for more, including for streaming services to pay the same as traditional broadcast. Meanwhile, screen performers have found that their union SAG-AFTRA’s minimum rates are no longer a baseline – they’re the norm.
As well as wages, both unions are demanding better ‘residuals’. These are payments screen workers receive when the show is re-run (or continuously streamed). They can be essential to surviving in entertainment, the original gig economy. Streaming bosses take a much greater share as profits.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the second main issue. Writers are demanding that AI tools only be used to generate ideas for consideration, not replace writers’ jobs.
Screen performers are fighting for the right to control their own likeness – producers want to pay once for actor input that can be turned into unlimited AI ‘performance’. This poses both a reduction in work – especially for lower-profile artists – and your voice and image being used on work you don’t endorse.
SAG-AFTRA’s sister union in the UK, Equity, held a noisy solidarity rally in Leicester Square on 21 July. Hundreds of jobbing writers and performers, mostly young, joined internationally renowned actors, like Brian Cox and Imelda Staunton, alongside union leaders.
The international solidarity, and elements of international action, are hugely positive. Equity has produced standard guidance on who legally can and cannot join the strike in the UK. Nonetheless, if any entertainment worker is victimised for refusing to cross a picket line, this must not be tolerated and mass action called in response.
Equity general secretary Paul Fleming looked ahead to our own coming negotiations with screen producers. He warned bosses that Equity’s position would be: “We want what SAG-AFTRA got – and you know what, we might want a little bit more as well!” If the bosses don’t agree, Equity should strike too.