July 18, 2023 -NEW YORK (AP) — 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.