A win for workers in the digital streaming industry

Both Abe and I work in creative industries. He’s a writer and I’ve worked in theatre and music. If you look at our extended friends group, we also know dancers, painters, fashion designers, jugglers, and a host of other folk in similarly creative professions. The unifying thread between all of these jobs is no one pays well. I’ve worked at music union rates before — they aren’t enough to pay the bills. I remember the first time I encountered a strong voice against working for exposure was Harlan Ellison’s essay “Pay the Writer.” As has been commonly repeated in sewing circles, people die of exposure.

One of the biggest labor movements within the arts that I’ve personally seen has been the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) union strikes and engagement. At this point, IATSE is working with commercial production departments, music supervisors, and joining forces with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the teamsters, as well as others I’m sure, trying to make sure that the media we know and love gets made without destroying the workers. While the bulk of the concerns that most of these unions have had are safety related, such as reducing hours, requiring stricter enforcement of existing regulations (remember the cinematographer that was shot by Alec Baldwin last year?), a number of concerns have been monetary. Frankly, most people in the arts work at starvation wages and work around the clock, or they leave the arts embittered and/or traumatized. If I had a dime for every artist I’ve heard who lamented their life’s choice, I could swim like Scrooge McDuck through coins. In part thanks to the called-off strike from last fall, IATSE has been able to sign some new contracts in the workers’ favor, like VICE media reducing minimum work weeks from 50 hours to 40 and raising minimum salaries to $63,000 with minimum annual raises from 3-3.75%. But this is a slow process and the abuse, overwork, and underpaying of employees has gone on for too long for swift answers.

One of the biggest culprits of abusing cheap labor are the streaming platforms like Netflix. Last year Scarlett Johansson sued Disney for breech of contract involving streaming rights and profits, and her lawsuit highlighted any number of similar contract breeches. But the reasoning for shafting creatives, according to Netflix et al., is because ‘no one knows what streaming could possibly do! It’s a new technology! It’s a financial gamble that we all just have to share in the reduced wages and be team players.’ Well its been two decades. We all know that streaming companies are the primary movers and shakers in film these days, so that excuse has worn quite thin.

Which is why I was incredibly happy to see that Netflix lost a suit last week. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) was not willing to accept the precedent of shitty contracts that previous unions had signed and took Netflix to court for its members. The primary writer for ‘Birdbox’ won $1.2 million and the arbitration is being applied retroactively to previous titles written. 216 writers on 139 Netflix films are being paid $42 million in back pay, essentially. Apparently streaming revenue was one of the concessions the WGA gave up to end the 2007 writers’ strike and it was expected to be discussed in 2020 — the discussion was put on hold due to COVID. I feel like the past two years of absolutely bumper profits because of said pandemic was a factor in the WGA winning the case. This also was an expected problem, for those keeping an eye on Hollywood’s interactions with labor. The final paragraph of an LA Times article on the recalled IATSE strike from last fall says:

Turmoil over working conditions and fair pay in streaming productions will persist in Hollywood no matter the outcome of the IATSE vote. The Writers Guild of America, historically much more apt to strike than below-the-line workers, will surely watch closely to see how the IATSE contract debate unfolds. WGA’s own contract comes up for renegotiation in 2023.

I hope that this successful lawsuit leads to more wins for those working in creative industries across the board. Everyone’s feeling the pinch right now, and the only way to get better treatment is to fight for it.

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  1. sonofrojblake says

    “. If I had a dime for every artist I’ve heard who lamented their life’s choice, I could swim like Scrooge McDuck through coins”

    Indeed. And yet, still people persist in choosing this career,in the certain knowledge that they won’t earn enough money to live on.

    It’s almost as though they’re choosing to do it for other reasons (e.g. it’s fun) , then demanding that people who demonstrably don’t value what they produce are forced to pay for it anyway.

    I’d like to get paid to go paragliding. Are you going to pay me? If not, why not?

  2. says

    Except that as with everything else, pay has been declining, and people constantly expect to get things from artists for free, or for “exposure”.

    Which was mentioned in the post, and which you seem to be choosing to ignore.

    Art is something that is generally considered to be valuable in human society, and forcing it to follow the profit motive stifles it. You know George Lucas said that his Soviet counterparts had more freedom than he did, as artists, because of the constraints of capitalism?

    As to paying for shit, cry me a fucking river. You’re here for free.

    And I’ve been paying for other people’s bullshit my whole life, as have you. This whole system forces us to pay for other people’s bullshit. War, subsidies for rich assholes, climate change, pollution, bigotry, greed – I’ve had to literally FUND all of that shit, but you’re gonna whine about the notion of paying creators?

    You just seem to resent the notion that some people think things should work differently.

  3. Jazzlet says

    In addition to Abe’s response, the idea that creatives spend all their work time having fun is in itself ludicrous. Unless a creative is incredibly famous there will be plenty of mundane tasks in any job, eg I don’t know any paint artists who love cleaning their brushes. But aside from that their is a protestant vibe to the comment – work isn’t fun, anything that is fun can’t be work – which is distinctly puritanical.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    “people constantly expect to get things from artists for free”

    You think artists are unique in this? You think this doesn’t happen to journalists, lawyers, engineers, accountants? You’ve never heard the word “intern”, or just not really thought about what it means? Almost EVERY way of making a living expects people to do it for free, with very few exceptions. It’s a form of gatekeeping, and it sucks, but it does weed out people who don’t REALLY want it.

    “Art is something that is generally considered to be valuable in human society”

    Oh yeah? By whom?

    I’d counter that human society has generally agreed that SOME art is valuable, but your complaint appears to be that society in general appears to like the wrong stuff (i. e. Not your stuff) , the ungrateful philistines.

    “Soviet counterparts had more freedom”

    Freedom to churn out stuff fewer people actually thought was any good. Whoopi fuckin goldberg. Also, millionaire Best Director nominee George Lucas had limits on his creativity? If true (and I’m sceptical) then… Good. We’ve seen what he makes when unfettered, and it’s fairly universally regarded as self indulgent shit (without even getting into the racist bits).

    I’m not whining about paying creators. I’m disagreeing with the idea that creation itself is inherently valuable beyond whatever value it offers the creator. It’s not. 80%+ of all art I’ve ever seen is worthless shit that the world would have been fine without. If you disagree, you’re welcome to pay the people who made it.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    One point: I’m in favour of cutting defence spending and providing a universal basic income. I don’t like paying for that shit either. Would you be content creating on ubi, or do you require more?

  6. consciousness razor says

    You think artists are unique in this?

    There’s no need for it to be unique, because it is still a problem worth criticizing either way. The more solidarity workers have with each other, the better. But instead of that, you seem to want to use our shared struggles against us. Why?

    It just doesn’t make sense to me that you think you should take this particular instance of it, get all frothy with people who have legitimate complaints about these injustices specifically, and write confused apologetics about that. (Not the first time either. As I recall, there was a Trivial Knot thread too a while back. It appears to be one of your … things.)

    “Art is something that is generally considered to be valuable in human society”

    Oh yeah? By whom?

    The ones who consume that media, such as the millions who pay for a streaming service and consume its content, which in turn isn’t paying the actual creators of that content fairly. Why do you assume that we would be talking about content that nobody wants and which nobody is willing to pay for? Where did you get that impression?

    I’m not whining about paying creators.

    Seems like it.

    I’m disagreeing with the idea that creation itself is inherently valuable beyond whatever value it offers the creator. It’s not.

    You mean … people never do pay a monetary value for it?

    Are you sure you didn’t invent this “inherently valuable” stuff just to beat it down? Where was that to be found in this thread previously? Perhaps more importantly, it’s apparently to deny that you’re not whining about paying creators, since you need to provide some kind of alternative. What if that were just BS?

  7. sonofrojblake says

    The more solidarity workers have with each other, the better.

    Oh, I absolutely agree. I think the difficulty you have is that the workers with the most power – the ones who, when they go on strike will cause actual problems which cause employers to come to the negotiating table and get serious – tend to be the workers who are doing something
    (a) actual vital and
    (b) difficult and/or dangerous
    So miners, air traffic controllers, nurses, train drivers – the people without whose constant, difficult, dangerous efforts society starts to grind to a halt – those people have power, especially if they show solidarity with each other. And it’s relatively easy to persuade say, a train driver that they have common cause with, say, a miner. But to take either of those people – one responsible every day for the safe transit of thousands of people, the other slogging hard underground in dirty and dangerous conditions, and tell them that they should find common cause with someone who sits in an air conditioned office and just… writes – I think that’s justifiably a harder sell.

    That said: you are in fact right. EVERYONE who isn’t independently wealthy is (or should be) on the same side. If you have to work at all, whether as a scene shifter or a surgeon, you’re working class and your loyalty should be to everyone else in the same boat. The difficulty is, I think, that some parts of the boat look more comfortable than others.

    you seem to want to use our shared struggles against us. Why?

    I should think one explanation is obvious – jealousy. Like I said, I’d like to get paid to go paragliding. Who’s going to pay me to do it? You? And if not, why not? And yet people clearly get into creative arts because they enjoy it – which is to say, it’s a hobby that gives them, if you like, spiritual fulfilment, just like my paragliding did for me – then seem annoyed that their hobby won’t pay their bills. I don’t know of many people who are in creative arts who don’t actively enjoy doing it, whereas in literally every single other job I’ve done or even know anything at all about (due to knowing people who do them or encountering the people doing them) most people seem to fucking hate working and only do it because it pays the bills. Certainly you can’t tell me anyone working on the railways in the UK enjoys their job, because in my fairly recent experience every single one of them I encountered seemed to be in a mood indicative of having the worst day of their life, every day. No wonder they’re wanting a pay rise. Then I see people painting or writing poetry, and calling it “work”. Oh yeah?

    I’m comfortable admitting jealously is part of it, but I doubt you’re comfortable admitting jealousy is part of your complaint. You’re quite obviously jealous of the people rich and happy enough to work for nothing, or peanuts, which you find devalues your worth in the marketplace. But that’s the occupational hazard of trying to make a living doing something people do for fun. There is NO competition in the marketplace of chemical engineering project management from people prepared to do the job for nothing. Oddly similarly miners hardly ever complain about all the young miners coming through who are prepared to work for “exposure” or “experience”. It’s just not a thing that happens. Personally, the people I blame are the irresponsible careers advisers and parents who didn’t do enough work to dissuade all these unhappy people from pursuing such a depressingly unlucrative career in the first place.

    “I’m disagreeing with the idea that creation itself is inherently valuable beyond whatever value it offers the creator. It’s not.”

    You mean … people never do pay a monetary value for it?

    You are Cathy Newman And I Claim My Five Pounds.

  8. says

    Yeah, all right, dude, you’re done. You continually engage in bad faith, and refuse to consider that your perspective might not be correct until AFTER you’ve insulted a bunch of people. Remember the argument about bias in medicine? I’m tired of this shit.

    We have pointed out multiple times that we’re not just talking about people’s “hobbies”. We’re talking about a set of professions in which people provide goods or services FOR WHICH THERE IS A DEMAND, and for which many other people seem to think they shouldn’t have to pay.

    Like you, they denigrate those professions as “hobbies” akin to paragliding, to justify underpaying people whose work they want or need, or even refusing to pay for the work at all. Kindly remember that this post was about NETFLIX WORKERS getting a win. Are you going to pretend you don’t think Netflix is profitable? No.

    Further, you apparently want to divide the working class based on whether jobs are dangerous? That’s counter-productive to the point of being malicious. It also ignores the health problems that absolutely come with having a job where you have to sit for most of the day, repetitive stress injuries, long or unconventional hours, and the fact that nowhere in society do we treat people better for having more dangerous job. The only reason to bring that up, is to belittle workers who you apparently think don’t have a right to organize.

    As you say, your problem is jealousy, but it goes beyond that. You want to justify that by dragging everyone else down, and finding reasons to belittle and insult people. There’s no reason for me to indulge that any longer.

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