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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