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Hollywood and a history of strikes: How did they turn out?

Hollywood Strikes - A History
Posted at 3:42 PM, Jul 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-07-18 16:42:13-04

The common refrain is that there's nothing Hollywood loves so much as its own history — but that's a history inextricable from its labor movements.

As the industry comes to a momentous halt courtesy of dual strikes by its actors and screenwriters, it's worth looking back at the effects of past protests, walkouts and other actions.

The Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild, the forerunner to today's Writers Guild of America, were each founded in 1933, though threads of collective action and solidarity run to the very beginnings of the motion picture industry.

At its founding, SAG boasted less than two dozen members. Ninety years later, 65,000 SAG-AFTRA members are on strike (the two actors unions merged in 2012).

For a few decades, strikes erupted at a regular cadence. The first actors strikes came in the 1950s, and a SWG strike in 1953 secured the first television residuals. But protests largely tapered off by the late 1980s.

Before 1950, strikes were about basic working conditions, said Kate Fortmueller, associate professor of film and media history at Georgia State University and an expert in Hollywood labor history.

“Post-1950, the concerns are more about residuals, replays, so like distribution. So it’s less about sort of how we’re working and more about how do we share in the profits that our work continues to generate?” she said. The 2023 strikes, Fortmueller said, marks a return to the more fundamental concerns about working conditions — and existential worries about the industry's future.

Throughout it all the guilds have faced essentially the same opponent: the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. First a conglomerate of studio heads, it evolved to include studios and networks, and now boasts streamers and other major production companies, Fortmueller said.

“These streaming companies have origins in tech. And tech is a very different labor culture than Hollywood, in part because tech is not heavily unionized. And Hollywood has been for almost 100 years,” Fortmueller said, characterizing a major animating factor in AMPTP's evolution.

In a rare but major exception, the studios were not a combatant in one of Hollywood's most lurid strikes, a 227-day dispute between two so-called below-the-line unions that became defined by a single day. Whether you prefer “Bloody” or “Black” as the descriptor to that Friday in early October 1945, the resulting moniker for the melee in the Warner Bros. studio lot is appropriately weighty.

It may be tempting to prognosticate about the end of these concurrent strikes, but history is of little help here: Past strikes have spanned months and lasted minutes. Nonetheless, they're instructive for how the issues that drove the conflicts and the resolutions set the stage for today's disputes. Each success and failure has contributed to shaping the contemporary landscape.

Here’s a look at some of the most significant strikes in Hollywood labor history.

2007-2008 writers strike: 100 days

KEY ISSUE: Compensation, including residual payments, for shows and movies distributed digitally

MAIN RESULTS: Jurisdiction over projects created for the internet under certain guidelines; set compensation for ad-supported streaming programs; increased residuals for downloaded shows and movies

Since it was the most significant Hollywood strike in decades, it's the one most etched in most people's memories. All told, it had an estimated $2 billion impact on the California economy and is often credited with sending programming further into reality television's clutches (even if such gems as NBC's “My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad” didn't have much staying power).

While an analyst at the time told the AP the strike was “an unqualified success,” some WGA members felt they were pressured into accepting weaker terms because the Directors Guild of America negotiated their own contract on similar issues. A specter of that discontent reared its head again 15 years later, when the DGA reached a “truly historic” tentative agreement with AMPTP a little over a month into the 2023 writers strike.

“They have all these other concerns, like with prestige and credit and authorship ... and things that are not as tangible,” Fortmueller said of the directors guild's priorities through the ages.

1988 writers strike: 154 days

KEY ISSUE: Residuals for television shows sold to foreign markets

MAIN RESULTS: More creative control over scripts and the reacquisition of original screenplays; salary increases, though guild negotiators said they were less successful in winning larger payments for the foreign market reruns

This contract was ratified on the 154th day of the strike, making it the longest WGA strike by a margin of one day.

“It was a very difficult time. Over a period of time, some of the rancor and anger will be forgotten. I don’t think the spirit will be forgotten, though. They (the writers) will remember this for a long time,” WGA spokesperson Cheryl Rhoden said at the time.

Fortmueller also noted that this strike really marked the birth of reality TV as a way to fill time in vacant schedule blocks.

1981 writers strike: 96 days; 1980 actors strike: 77 days

KEY ISSUE: The fast-growing home video and pay TV markets

MAIN RESULTS: Share of producer revenues from those markets; increase in base pay

While these strikes happened nearly a year apart, the core issue was the same: Actors and writers wanted a portion of the revenue generated in quickly growing markets — there was money to be made on videocassettes.

In 1980, SAG, AFTRA and the American Federation of Musicians all went on strike. In the longest strike in their history, the actors ended up winning the industry's first pay TV concessions. The musicians had no such luck, despite striking for 167 days.

The following year, striking writers won similar concessions, and WGA spokespeople characterized it as the most extensive and precedent-setting deal the guild had negotiated in two decades.

1973 writers strike: 111 days

KEY ISSUES: Pay and benefits

MAIN RESULTS: Salary hikes, guaranteed residual pay schedules for movies on cassettes and pay TV

While the 1973 writers strike technically lasted for 16 weeks, work was not necessarily halted the entire time. The strike didn't extend to soap operas and variety shows until more than a month in — and those effects were more immediately tangible.

Around 10 weeks into the strike, the boycotts were pared back to just the major television and film studios that comprised the AMPTP. By that point, more than 150 independent producers — who controlled more than 50% of primetime television — had signed the new contract and were allowed to get back to work.

1960 writers and actors strike: 153 days (WGA), 43 days (SAG)

KEY ISSUES: Foreign and subsidiary rights on television scripts, rerun rights, proceeds from the sale of post-1948 films to television, a pension system for SAG

MAIN RESULTS: Actors and writers won salary bumps, residual payments for films released to TV and — most crucially — the establishment of pension, health and welfare funds; writers agree to waive claims on revenue from the sale of pre-1960 movies to TV

The writers quite literally struck first, and would strike longer, but it was SAG — with its starry membership — that would be first to secure pension, health and welfare funds. In a marked departure from today's raucous and punny picket lines, the guilds did not picket or demonstrate, according to contemporaneous articles that called the nature of the strikes “firm but polite.”

“This is what studios were afraid of in the ’20s and ’30s, is nobody wants to see your stars on a picket line. It's not the optics that Hollywood wants,” Fortmueller said of how the actors' decision to strike changed the calculus. Writers also tend to be on the same page, with similar responsibilities; so if a guild as diverse in roles as SAG-AFTRA is today overwhelmingly chooses to strike, she noted, that telegraphs the severity of the situation.

SAG was helmed by Ronald Reagan, who represented his fellow actors at the bargaining table alongside arguably bigger celebrities of the time, like Oscar winner Charlton Heston and James Garner, then the star of TV ratings juggernaut “Maverick.” Just two decades later, Reagan — as U.S. president — would become known as one of the most damaging figures in the country's labor history for his firing of thousands of air traffic controllers during their 1981 strike.

A 1960 AP story announcing an initial settlement for the actors underlined the magnitude of the strike as “unique in labor history because millionaires were as thick on labor’s side as they were on management’s.”

SAG-AFTRA's chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland invoked the spirit — and gains — of the 1960s last week at the press conference announcing the strike.

“This is the first SAG-AFTRA strike in this contract in over 40 years,” he said. “This is not a strike-happy union. This is a union that views strikes as a last resort but we’re not afraid to do them when that is what it takes to make sure our members receive a fair contract.”