Source: ufcw770, Wikimedia Commons

For six months last year, all eyes were on Hollywood—not for the movies they were making, but for what they weren’t making. Hollywood was locked in a labour struggle that brought the $134 billion film and television industry to a dead stop. 

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) were on strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade association representing 350 studios and streamers.

The strikes were part of the “hot labour summer” that included the biggest hotel worker strike in U.S. history, the United Auto Workers strike, and the threat of labour action from UPS Teamsters. The nature of the Hollywood strikes, though, meant that they got the limelight. As SAG-AFTRA president, Fran Drescher, said when the actors’ strike was called, “the eyes of the world, and particularly the eyes of labour are upon us.” 

The writers and actors had broad public support; they had the potential to strike a blow for workers against capitalist giants like Amazon and Disney—and just as importantly, inspire workers to do the same. But did they? 

The WGA strike ended on Sept. 27, the SAG-AFTRA strike on Dec. 5. Now that the dust has settled, we can see what was won, what was lost, and most importantly, how. 

What the writers won

The writers and actors shared their struggle. Both were confronting an existential crisis in an industry turned upside down by technological change. Workers’ pay had been eroded not only by soaring inflation and the cost of living in Los Angeles and New York City, but also by the shift to streaming that has all but wiped out residual payments. Shorter television seasons on streaming have also decimated contract lengths and writing opportunities, leading to the WGA’s demand for an end to the “mini-room” and for staffing minimums. Leaps in artificial intelligence (AI)—exemplified by the explosion of ChatGPT’s writing ability, or the glut of AI cameos in The Flash—clearly threaten writers’ and actors’ jobs. Protections against getting automated out of work became a sticking point as the strikes dragged on. Out of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA’s long lists of demands, residuals, staffing minimums and AI protections were identified as key for preserving the viability of their careers. 

When the WGA called their strike on May 2, the AMPTP was offering the workers just $86 million all told, a paltry reply to the union’s demand that would have cost the bosses an estimated total value of $429 million per year. What they ended up with in September was a deal worth $233 million. That might be only little more than half their original proposal, but it’s also almost three times what the AMPTP was willing to give at first.

But the fight wasn’t only over numbers.

“The miniroom is one of the most harmful things that has happened to writers,” a showrunner told Vanity Fair before the strike. Squashing the miniroom was essential. The WGA’s most significant gain was guaranteed staffing minimums to do just that. A minimum number of writers must be employed for a minimum length of time, including beyond pre-production, ensuring writers get valuable on-set experience. This was a demand that the AMPTP outright rejected in May and could not have been won without the strike.  

Another win was on automation—the use of AI. Originally, all the studios and streamers were willing to concede to were annual meetings to “discuss advancements in technology” with the union. They ended up agreeing that AI cannot be used to write or rewrite a script. 

There were also a series of wins on issues that were less prominent but nonetheless important. For example, screenwriters are now also guaranteed to be paid for writing a second draft of a movie script—astoundingly they weren’t before. One anonymous showrunner told Vulture he was “blown away” by the details of the contract, “It’s like you’ve been living in this shitty apartment with leaks and cracks, and then one day, they come in and fix 90 per cent of the bad things…There are dozens of things which will matter to a lot of people.”

But the deal wasn’t wins all the way down. The union did compromise on residuals. In May the WGA was demanding a viewership-based residual for streaming, so that writers would be compensated commensurate with success, as they are in linear television. This would have required streamers to be transparent with their viewership data—something they were more than a little reluctant to do. The AMPTP initially rejected the proposal with no counter-offer. What the WGA strike won was not a streaming residual, but a viewership-based streaming bonus. This bonus kicks in when a movie or series is viewed by 20 per cent or more of a service’s domestic subscribers in the first 90 days of release, and again if the show reaches 20 per cent viewership within a future 90-day window thereafter. The problem is that 20 per cent is a high bar to clear; it’s uncertain whether any shows will even meet it. Furthermore, it only applies to shows released on or after Jan. 1, 2024. If there is another Office renaissance its writers still won’t see a dime from Netflix.

The WGA leadership defended the compromise as a foot-in-the-door. At least now they have access to viewership data that streamers used to keep hidden, and they can use that to build new demands around in the future. But writers have been playing catch-up with streaming since it appeared. The time to close the gap was this strike, when they had leverage and momentum was on their side. 

The residual compromise notwithstanding, however, the WGA’s deal is widely considered a victory, especially considering the alternative. In July, an anonymous studio executive blatantly told Deadline that all the big studios were determined to “break the WGA.” They didn’t break. They came away with gains that industry insiders said were impossible in May.

After 148 long days on the picket lines, the reaction of writers to the deal was ecstatic. Their approval was reflected in a 99 per cent ratification vote.  

SAG-AFTRA settles

Once the studios and streamers made a deal with the writers, everyone expected Hollywood to get back to work as soon as possible. Surely the AMPTP was ready to get down to business and deal with the actors. But that’s not what happened. The studios seemed determined to not give any more ground to labour. It was more than a month before the AMPTP reached a tentative agreement with SAG-AFTRA, on Nov. 9. 

And while SAG-AFTRA billed their deal as “historic” and “unprecedented,” the outcome wasn’t nearly as clear-cut as the WGA’s. 

What they did win was a raise in minimums above what the writers got, and a streaming bonus based on the formula established WGA deal—though with a key addition. They have to clear the same 20 per cent viewership hurdle as the writers, but if they do, their bonus is higher. The key difference though is that the individual actor gets 75 per cent of that bonus, while 25 per cent goes into a union-administered fund for distribution among the union membership. It’s been dubbed a “Robin Hood fund.” Drescher championed the fund as a new revenue stream for actors, “money is money, no matter where it comes from.” But it is a far cry from what the actors had been asking for, which was not welfare, but to be paid commensurate to the success of their work. Furthermore, the details of how the fund will be administered are non-existent—some of that money will certainly end up feeding the union bureaucracy. 

The contract does contain other advances, but when you look at a side-by-side comparison of what the AMPTP was offering before the strike to what the strike won, those differences seem minimal (a similar comparison with the WGA contract shows leaps in gains).

Dissent over AI 

The most controversial aspect of the deal was the AI protections—or lack thereof. 

In July, the AMPTP’s AI proposal that, “background performers should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness, and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity, any project they want with no consent and no compensation,” ignited indignation across the industry, spurring on the actors’ militancy. So SAG-AFTRA leadership was proud when it presented a contract guaranteeing “informed consent and fair compensation” for the creation of “digital replicas.” A studio cannot scan a performer’s likeness without their consent, and if the studio uses the actor’s AI likeness in a production, they have to pay them their daily rate, as if they had performed in person. Furthermore, if only part of an actor’s likeness is used to create a new digital performer, or “AI object,” the studio would likewise have to get the actor’s consent, as long as the feature is recognizably theirs. Caitlin Dulany, a member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee, called the AI provisions the “crowning achievement” of the contract. 

Source: Warner Bros.

But actors soon started saying the protections didn’t go far enough. At the beginning of the strike the union had proposed a veto on the use of AI to create synthetic performances, and that’s what actors wanted—to eliminate the threat of being replaced by technology altogether.  

There was even dissent within the SAG-AFTRA board. Board member Anne-Marie Johnson protested, “There should be no AI. Only human beings should be used in what we create for public consumption… Without staving off AI, everything we achieved is for naught. It’s a waste of time.” 

Shaan Sharma, an alternate member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee pointed out, “If the replica doesn’t give a clear impression that it’s you, none of the protections apply.”

Critics pointed out that “consent” to being scanned for AI doesn’t mean much when that choice is tied to a paycheque. Sharma told Rolling Stone, “It’s only those with considerable leverage that will have the ability to say no to the replication, but still be hired… That really concerns me because most members don’t have the leverage to say no at the time of engagement.” 

The contract also allows studios to use AI to change actors’ performance, as long as “the photography or sound track remains substantially as scripted, performed and/or recorded.” The idea that studios can override an actor’s performance after the fact is galling to artists. It reduces them to puppets. 

Justine Bateman, who had been an AI consultant for SAG-AFTRA during negotiations, was especially vocal in her criticism, posting extensive threads on X (formerly Twitter) detailing the contract’s weaknesses. “This is akin to SAG giving a thumbs-up for studios/streamers using non-union actors,” she wrote. “I find it baffling that a union representing human actors would give approval of those same actors being replaced by an AI Object.” She added, “To me, this inclusion is an anathema to a union contract at all.”

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, union COO and general counsel defended the deal, “I can guarantee you we couldn’t have stopped AI no matter how long we would have stayed on strike.” He might very well be right. No matter how much the luddites smashed the machines that threw them out of work, they couldn’t stop the Industrial Revolution. But it is also true that in the hands of capitalists, technology is used to degrade work, make it more tedious and lower-paid. The solution isn’t to fight the technology, but to take it out of the bosses’ hands. Workers should decide where and when AI is used. 

Under worker control, you could imagine AI being used to assist in previsualization, iterate hair and makeup looks, pull off dangerous stunts, or otherwise remove the drudgery from acting. Under capitalism, however, it will be used to remove the acting from acting, making performers nothing more than puppets to be micromanaged by studio heads. 

In the end the agreement was approved with 78 per cent in favour, though the voter turnout of 38 per cent perhaps betrayed a lack of enthusiasm in the membership (the WGA had 77 per cent of their members turning out to approve their contract). 

Despite their shared interests and shared enemy, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, in the end, did not share the same story. The Hollywood strikes were a tale of two unions.

How the writers won

When taking stock of what the WGA got right, rank-and-file writers need to be mentioned first. Assessing the balance-sheet of the WGA strike, the co-editor of Variety, Cynthia Littleton, said, “The studios got outplayed by the Writers Guild… The studios, with all their money, had nothing like the force of the WGA membership.”

According to Warren Leight, a WGA strike captain, this contrasts starkly with the last writer’s strike in which there was disunity in the ranks, between WGA East and West, and between the well-paid showrunners and more lowly staffers. Their newfound unity didn’t come from nowhere. Screenwriter John August explains the change, “Our membership is younger and more diverse than it’s ever been before. We have members who are really used to the protest moment. They’re used to being out on the streets and fighting for what they believe in.” That is, workers are radicalizing. 

Which isn’t to discount the role of leadership. The union took a hands-off approach to the membership, letting their creativity flourish, and letting some rank-and-file members become de-facto spokespeople on social media. Members had a sense of ownership over the strike. They also encouraged members to organize amongst themselves. The Hollywood Reporter observed, “It’s the union actually becoming its membership, a mass-movement organization, rather than a nonprofit representing a group.” 

The leadership had also prepared the rank and file for a long strike. Just before the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) took a bad deal in their own contract negotiations, WGA West president, Chris Keyser, sent a video message to membership emphasizing, “the single thing that will determine whether we succeed or fail in this strike is our endurance.” They created a feedback loop where the persistence of the leadership inspired dedication in the ranks—dedication the leadership could lean-on as months passed and pressure mounted. 

The AMPTP’s strategy was to starve the writers out. After months without work, Hollywood started feeling a pinch. Small businesses from prop houses to restaurants started to shut their doors. On Aug. 22, the AMPTP called the WGA in to negotiate, expecting them to be softened. They brought them in for a lecture. “[T]his wasn’t a meeting to make a deal. This was a meeting to get us to cave,” The WGA said in a statement. They didn’t cave. They walked out of that meeting. It was a turning point. The WGA proved they weren’t going to blink. Actual negotiations didn’t resume until a month later, and when they did the AMPTP finally gave ground.  


The biggest weapon the writers had on their side was solidarity. As soon as they called their strike, crew in IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and workers in Teamster Local 399 refused to cross picket lines, shutting down shoots and ensuring studios started suffering well before the actors walked out on July 14.

Source: ufcw770, Wikimedia Commons

“The other unions held together in solidarity with us in ways we’d never seen before,” said August. And Leight observed, “It’s that level of union solidarity and the general sense of we have to draw the line here. This is it. What struck me… was how many signs there were from how many different guilds and how many people are marching with us, from the retail workers, to the building superintendent to these unions.” 

In turn, that solidarity changed the consciousness of the writers. They visited the picket lines of other unions striking across L.A., from hotel workers to Teamsters. Boy Meets World writer, Mark Blutman, wrote about the solidarity visits, “Today was indeed overwhelming as I experienced a rebirth of sorts at the UPS Teamster rally. I always thought of myself as a writer first and foremost. But today as I stood among a sea of humanity and was moved to tears by the speakers I realized exactly who I am. I am labor.” This is the power of united class struggle.

As the months drew on, that unity meant all the more. The writers had a responsibility to not settle for a bad deal, to make the sacrifice of everyone worth it. 

Was it worth it?

Rank-and-file writers certainly feel like they won. The post-strike parties were euphoric, and as mentioned, they approved the contract by 99 per cent. The day the deal was announced, workers in other entertainment fields took inspiration as well, eager to follow in the writers’ footsteps. The Animation Guild contract is up in 2024 and animation writers in particular looked to the WGA strike as an example. 

But could they have done better? Of the $196 million the WGA gave up, could they have hung on to more? Perhaps, but they would have needed a consistent class perspective to do that. If the WGA leadership had a weakness it may have been a spirit of friendship to the bosses. In a Labour Day video in which he addressed the membership, Keyser ended an otherwise decent and intransigent message by saying, “we have never been the companies’ enemies, we are not their enemy now. We are their creative partners first and foremost.” He fundamentally misunderstood the class dynamics of a strike—the bosses are the enemy. They certainly treat the workers like an enemy, as the Hollywood strikes themselves demonstrated, with studios starving out workers for months. The first step to fighting an enemy needs to be recognizing them as such, not welcoming them as “partners.” 

The rank-and-file writers won’t walk away from this strike with that same conciliationism. They will have drawn their own conclusions about who their enemies are. As one writer, reflecting on the length of the strike, and the studios’ refusal to bargain for months, said to Vulture, “It was shameful behavior. We will conveniently forget about it because we need to work with them. But we will never forgive.” 

How SAG-AFTRA wavered

Ironically, after benefitting so much from the solidarity of other unions, one of the compromises the WGA made was on honoring picket lines. When the strike was at its height and everyone was swept up in solidarity, there was talk of working in a clause to the contract that protects the workers’ right not to cross a picket line—similar to what IATSE and the Teamsters have. There was even talk of not returning to work at all until the actors got a good deal. An article in Variety suggested the proposal raised the studio exec’s ire and was thus abandoned. Whether or not that is true, it was forgotten.

Once the writers were back the actors were left in a weakened position. Though SAG-AFTRA is a bigger union, with arguably much more leverage, their leadership is not as intransigent as the WGA’s.

In October, while negotiations were troubled, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland openly talked to the Hollywood Reporter about giving ground to the AMPTP and being baffled that the compromises weren’t reciprocated. “We made a huge, huge concession on streaming revenue share, changing that proposal away from a revenue percentage into just a viewership proposal — massive move in their direction. I’m truly shocked that they have not responded favorably to that and that they instead decided to walk away from the table. It is mystifying to me.”

He also appeared sympathetic to AMPTP concerns that agreeing to AI limits that didn’t apply to competitors outside the AMPTP would handicap them in the marketplace. 

And when defending the contract to SAG-AFTRA members in a Zoom call, Fran Drescher explained, “The tallest bamboo tree can lean the farthest… And that’s what people need to do in a negotiation. In order to stand tall, you must be able to lean as well.” She didn’t expand on how leaning translates to better pay and working conditions.

A symptom of SAG-AFTRA’s yielding character was the union issued waivers that allowed some productions to continue if they signed onto interim agreements that met SAG-AFTRA’s demands. For example, A24, which is not a member of the AMPTP, continued filming throughout the strike. The justification for this was that it would ease the sacrifices of the strike if some could keep working, and prove in practice that the union’s demands were reasonable. In fact, such a tactic only creates divisions in the ranks, as some sacrifice more than others. A few actors recognized this, like Viola Davis, and stopped working in solidarity, despite their films being granted waivers. Writers too pointed out that the WGA employed a similar strategy in the 2007-8 strike, to their detriment. It’s illustrative of the tactic’s efficacy that they didn’t try it again this time around. While the WGA was upfront about the sacrifices that were called for, SAG-AFTRA tried to soften the blow—and softened themselves. The point of the strike was to create a content drought, and even A24’s content gets shown on streaming. 

The reasoning and justification behind the strike waivers isn’t dissimilar to that of the UAW’s “stand-up strike” tactic. If the Hollywood strike teaches the labour movement anything, it should be that its power was in shutting down production, and anything that undermined that was a detriment.

Before the strike, too, SAG-AFTRA leadership showed signs of conciliation with the bosses. A week before their contract expiry date, Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland released a positive video message, reporting that negotiations were going well. This prompted an outcry from rank-and-file actors, who, in an open letter reported on in all the trades, blatantly expressed a lack of faith in leadership and pushed them to call a strike. Any backbone the union had came from its rank and file

As the strike dragged on, unity within the rank and file started to shake. Divisions between stars and working-class actors started to open up. There was one faction emerging of comfortable actors that wanted to get back to work, and another that wanted to stay out. Neither had faith in the leadership. George Clooney and other A-listers met with SAG-AFTRA to propose a strange idea to increase their union dues as a work-around to the labour dispute. In response, 100 days into the strike, another open letter, signed by thousands of actors, was released, urging the leadership to hold the line.  This is in itself a lesson to the working class, that their leadership is not immune to pressure from the ranks. 

As outlined above, the actors’ contract was not a clear loss. They did win some gains. One of the biggest achievements was that they “broke pattern.” In Hollywood there is a strong tradition of pattern bargaining, in which the terms of one guild’s contract are applied to the others. Even the last writers’ strike ended with the WGA accepting a deal with terms modelled by the DGA contract. SAG-AFTRA secured a raise to minimums higher than both the DGA and the WGA. 

But they could have gone further. The contract was shot-through with petty compromises. For example, hair and makeup equity: racialized actors wanted guarantees that there would be hair and makeup artists on set with the training and ability to work with them—what they got was reimbursement for getting their hair and makeup done themselves. 

Disappointment over such compromises were just a fraction of the many criticisms that rained down on SAG-AFTRA leadership after the deal was announced. Actors also complained that the press was notified of the deal before they were, that the leadership buckled under threats that shows would be cancelled if the strike dragged past December, that they distrusted that the new fund will be managed properly, that there were no meaningful consequences if studios use actors’ likenesses against their consent, and, of course, that the AI language did not define human performance.

SAG-AFTRA leadership found themselves having to campaign in favour of a ratification vote against an inchoate “vote no” movement. Fran Drescher, scolded “naysayers” and “contrarians” in a Zoom meeting of hundreds of members. Crabtree-Ireland poured cold water on hopes of continuing the fight, “Continuing the strike into the holiday period, in my view, would not have resulted in additional leverage. It would have probably de-leveraged us for a variety of reasons. And I do not believe we would have been able to gain additional gains in this contract by staying on strike longer.” The union even shared a message from Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) calling anyone voting “no,” “Sociopaths with no sense of empathy.” The post was later deleted.

The opposition didn’t grow big enough to carry on the strike. With union leadership so obviously unwilling to continue the fight, rank and file who wanted more from their contract didn’t have many options. This illustrates the need for militant rank and file to organize within their union in-between contracts, so that they are in a stronger position to fight when the time comes. 

Screen actors’ dissatisfaction with their leadership was unfortunately vindicated recently when SAG-AFTRA made a deal with an AI company for licensing actors’ voices for video games. Voice actors felt sold-out by the deal. World of Warcraft voice actor Andrew Russell called it “garbage.” 

So far, the effect of the deal on a layer of actors seems to be not demoralization, but anger. They don’t feel that the strike was pointless, but that it should have gone further. In the coming period we can surely expect SAG-AFTRA leadership to be challenged. As workers radicalize, they will replace their leaders with ever more militant ones.

An industry in crisis

In the near future, militancy will be more important than ever, because none of the problems actors and writers were striking against have gone away. 

Generally, the entertainment industry is struggling. The streaming bubble has burst, and streamers are cutting back on budgets in a desperate bid to appear profitable to investors. Theatrical releases are in crisis, adjusting to a post-pandemic world where no one seems to care about superheros. Studios are making workers pay for the precarity. Most recently, Netflix cut one-third of its animation division, Amazon Studios laid-off hundreds after merging with MGM, and after Disney’s abysmal year, Pixar is planning to lay off up to 20 per cent of its workers. 

Artificial intelligence is still here, it will continue to develop, finding new and more efficient ways to replace creative jobs. And fewer jobs for actors means fewer jobs for everyone on set, from hair-and-makeup, to lighting, to craft services. 

This is what IATSE will be up against this summer, when their contract expires. The 168,000-strong crew union is already gearing up for negotiations, taking some organizational cues from the WGA. Their last contract, in 2021, only barely passed its ratification vote, signalling that the membership was more eager to fight than its leaders. There are two possibilities for how this year’s IATSE negotiations will shake out: either the membership is drawn thin from half a year with no work and won’t fight, or they are radicalized and inspired by six months spent in solidarity and will strike. If they do strike they need to draw the right lessons from the 2023 strikes: persistence and shutting down production wins. The actors and writers also must pay back the solidarity they were shown and refuse to cross picket lines. Not only for moral reasons, but because the crew’s struggle is their struggle too. If the writers’ and actors’ strikes emboldened crew, the crew’s strike will in turn strengthen the writers and actors. 

All the strikes in the world, however, cannot overcome the crisis of capitalism, and ultimately, that’s what the crisis of the entertainment industry is. Exploitation is built-in. Workers will forever be playing catch-up with inflation and the rising cost of living, and trying to stave-off the encroachment of technology onto their livelihoods until the entire system is overthrown. 

And the profit motive is confining art just as much as it is workers’ lives. Netflix cancels shows after two seasons to save money on wages. Warner Bros. Discovery wipes work from its platforms and trashes completed movies for a tax write-off. Marvel is stuck in a loop producing superhero clones that drain VFX artists more than they entertain audiences. Studio interference, motivated by the markets, is the bane of creatives’ existence. If the entertainment industry is put under democratic, workers’ control, all of those problems will be swept away.

Film and television is the most social form of art there is. Its creation is the product of the labour of hundreds of people, every film is a factory. Control of production should be socialized as well, rather than be stuck under the thumb of a few megalomaniacal execs who care more about making a profit than making anything edifying. 

Only when workers run film and television for themselves will they have control over both their jobs and their art.