Over 8,000 Joined Entertainment Unions in 49 Campaigns During the Hollywood Strikes 

An analysis by Payday Report shows that 8,000 joined entertainment unions in 49 campaigns during the Hollywood Strikes (Photo Courtesy" Writers Guild of America West)

At the beginning of the strike last May, many were nervous that striking could lead to many writers being permanently replaced from their jobs. Some feared that even their fellow union members wouldn’t get their backs. 

The Writers Guild hadn’t been on strike since 2007, and studios were already boasting that they would use artificial intelligence to replace those workers. At the time, one studio executive was quoted in Deadline as saying that the studios planned “to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” 

“The early days were, you know, scary and hectic and energizing,” says Writers Guild of America strike captain Sean Cespo, who worked on shows such as Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. 

However, TV and film executives, members of the powerful Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers [AMPTP], were equally nervous in those early days of the strike. 

Explaining the stakes for streaming companies, One Apple TV+ executive told AllYourScreens.com that succumbing to the strike’s demands would “[set] the bar for writers in other territories. Or encourage industries in some countries to unionize to make more money. It’s not so much the direct costs of the WGA deal. It’s all of the fallout costs across the company.” 

Studio executives were right to worry. An exclusive analysis by Payday Report found there were at least 8,000 entertainment workers involved in 49 organizing drives during the 206-day-long Hollywood strikes. 

The analysis is the first to show the massive organizing jolt the strike gave entertainment unions nationwide. It was prepared using publicly available news articles and union press releases. The analysis likely missed several union drives. Additionally, Payday Report has learned that several union drives that started during the Hollywood strikes have yet to go public. 

Not only did they inspire organizing in the film & TV industry in the US, but they also inspired many strikes elsewhere. The Hollywood walkouts were repeatedly cited by 15,000 predominantly Latino hotel workers, who went on a series of roving wildcat strikes throughout Southern California during the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike last summer, often walking on picket lines arm-in-arm with some of Hollywood’s top stars. 

“You would never imagine they have the same struggles as us — they’re from the movies!” Fairmont Miramar housekeeper Lili Hernandez told the LA Times last July. “But it turns out we’re in the same boat. We need to make sure we don’t sink.”

It inspired auto workers at the Big Three, who went on strike in September. And it encouraged workers overseas at streaming companies like Netflix to unionize.

“Some people might not think that writers and actors have a lot in common with autoworkers, but we do,” UAW President Shawn Fain told his membership as they prepared to strike in mid-August. “All of us are at war with corporate greed and with companies that are prioritizing profits over people.”

While the long-term ripple effect of the Writers Guild action will not be fully understood for possibly years to come, our initial analysis shows that the immediate impact on organizing in entertainment unions has been tremendous: more than 8,000 workers unionized in 49 different campaigns during the strike. 

The “Summer of Strikes”: Hollywood, the UAW, and Hotel Workers

(Boots Riley (left) and Jack Black (right) walk the picket line. Photo: Boots Riley/Twitter)

At the age of 15, director Boots Riley joined the Progressive Labor Party in 1986 in Oakland, California. A dedicated trade unionist in the entertainment industry, Riley refused to promote the release of his hit Amazon show I Am a Virgo during the strike. 

However, the 52-year-old Riley says the imagination and militancy of the strike astonished even him. 

“I would be in [union] meetings, where there would be certain forces that we were meeting with, that may have been to the right. And they would often assume that I was the person agitating because of some of the radical provisions that were coming out,” Riley told Payday Report in an exclusive interview.

“And I have to say, I was kind of conservative in what I thought could happen, and what I thought could be done, but other people were putting together these big, bold acts of solidarity,” said Riley. 

The director credits the strike wave and the media’s newfound fascination with covering strikes, helping inspire film and TV workers.

The Hollywood strikes occurred during a historic strike wave of more than 3,000 strikes since it first began in March 2020, according to Payday Report’s Strike Tracker. 

The strike of 171,000 actors and writers was the first time that both SAG-AFTRA and WGA struck together since 1960. 

The strike started May 2 when 11,000 Writers Guild of America members turned off their computers and went out on the picket line. At the time, they did not know if the members of SAG-AFTRA would join them on the picket lines. Many writers worried that they could be replaced. 

For decades, the studios have attempted to pit union against union to get deals, but during this strike, the two unions stood together for 206 days. 

Not only did members of SAG-AFTRA show up in force to picket with the writers, but they were also joined by workers from other unions, including low-wage Latino hotel workers, who had begun a series of roving strikes organized by UNITE HERE that would eventually involve more than 15,000 hotel workers at several hotels throughout Southern California. 

As Hollywood workers went on strike, over 340,000 UPS workers, members of the Teamsters, whose union also represents some blue-collar film and TV crew members, were locked in a historic contract fight that summer. Many Teamsters showed their strength to UPS by showing up in force to walk picket lines outside of Hollywood studios. 

Cespo, a Writers Guild strike captain, said many of his fellow TV writers were nervous about striking and being replaced by scabs and AI. Still, the fear dissipated when they saw the support from other unions. 

“We were scared. A lot of us didn’t know where the strike was gonna go, you know, we had been just getting our sea legs under as a group of strikers,” said Cespo in an interview with Payday Report. “It wasn’t scary for long because it quickly became apparent. Everybody, everybody was on the same page that, you know, we’ve had enough with labor being exploited.”

Bitter IATSE Contract Fight Sets Stage for Unprecedented Solidarity

(IATSE members and striking Hotel workers from Unite Here Local 11 march together. Photo: Cynthia Carle/Twitter)

Not only had the major studios pitted the writers against the actors, they had also set the white-collar actors and writers against blue-collar set workers, members primarily of IATSE.

“In the last strike, the crews were not as supportive. But, they’ve been pushed to the breaking point themselves,” says Cespo. “And I think many of them saw that this was a watershed moment. So there was a lot of support from IATSE members.” 

The bitterly contested IATSE contract struggle of 2021 helped change much of that dynamic. Union members prepared to strike, only to settle for a contract that was narrowly passed by a margin of 50.3%-to-49.6%.

However, the inter-union solidarity that started in the build-up of the canceled 2021 IATSE strike continued, and many entertainment union organizers cite it as being key for the solidarity that led to the organizing breakthrough that the unions achieved during the strike. 

 “The way that so much of capitalism teaches people to be is, you know, in general, is to just look out for themselves,” said Boots Riley, “That is especially prevalent in the entertainment industry, where people will talk shit about each other because they’re playing this crabs-in-a-barrel sort of game.” 

“But what you saw during the strike, was a change in that culture, for the most part. You know, you saw people standing with each other, people standing up for each other,” says Riley. 

Over 8,000 Workers Join Entertainment Unions During the Strike

According to Payday Report’s analysis, over 8,000 entertainment workers joined the labor movement. The unions made gains not just in areas where labor only had small footholds, like nonfiction producers, animation, and podcasting, but also in new geographic regions. 

Many credited the film and TV unions’ unprecedented solidarity as critical to this organizing breakout. 

“I think this year, there’s a new solidarity amongst all of us and an understanding that we need to work together,” SAG-AFTRA Vice President Linda Powell told Payday Report. “It was a really exciting time, and I’m looking forward to finding out where it leads.” 

On July 12th, eight members of MTV’s clip show Ridiculousness became the first reality TV show to unionize during the strike.  

“As reality writers, a lot of people don’t know, these shows are scripted. Unscripted reality television is scripted,” Ridiculousness consulting producer Ally Maynard said in a speech at the Nonfiction Coalition West Coast solidarity picket on Aug. 15 at Paramount Studios. “We’re sick of studios being allowed to use unscripted TV to plug the gaps when scripted shows unionize. Next time a strike happens, if we have to do this again years down the road, unscripted, they’re not going to be able to rely on that anymore.”

The momentum continued throughout the summer.

In August, approximately 130 writers and producers at Story Syndicate — which created the hit documentary Harry and Meghan, the true crime series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and the Unknown docuseries — successfully obtained voluntary recognition from the nonfiction television powerhouse. 

“Historically, most documentary production companies have been nonunion, and thus their workers have not enjoyed the same workplace benefits and protections as their counterparts in the entertainment industry’s heavily unionized scripted sector,” the union said in a statement announcing its launch in early August. “But especially in the streaming age, documentaries have become an increasingly key part of media companies’ business models, spurring nonfiction workers and the unions to organize a sector of the industry that had often fallen outside of collective bargaining agreement.”

For years, the Writers Guild and Editors Guild had been involved in contentious disputes over who had the jurisdiction to organize nonfiction TV workers. However, in the spirit of solidarity during the strike, new cooperation efforts were formed between unions organizing in this space. Groups like Nonfiction Unite relaunched to help unite nonfiction workers across the industry. 

Animation Writers Breakthroughs in Texas, Virginia, and Puerto Rico

(Animation Guild members walk the picket line out of Walt Disney. Photo: Brittany Woodside/Twitter)

Animation workers had also been a difficult group to unionize. Not until 2022, with a union victory in New York City, was a single animation shop unionized outside of Los Angeles County

During the strike, a new sense of solidarity emerged between the Writers Guild and the IATSE Animation Guild, which had traditionally been adversaries, as they began to meet and plan joint action together. 

“This has been a long, horrible battle trying to get animation writing covered. We are not giving up. I’m really just here to say that when the strike is over when we have won the contract we deserve, we are circling back to animation,” Susan Kim, WGA East animation caucus co-chair, told a joint picket line outside of Warner Brothers Animation studio in July. “We are going to be back. We’re going to be better than ever. And we are going to get this goddamn industry organized.”

In early July, 129 workers in Austin, Texas, at Powerhouse Studios, makers of Castlevania, organized. The Texas victory was the first for the Animator’s Guild outside of California or New York. 

“At this critical point for the future of our industry, I’m also incredibly excited to stand in solidarity with the rest of entertainment workers in America,” said MinJi Yoon, a Powerhouse animator, when the union announced their victory. 

Two weeks later, 14 animation workers at Gladius Studios in San Juan, Puerto Rico, voted to unionize. 

“We wanted to have a voice, and be heard. But also we want to make Gladius a more sustainable place to work, opening more doors to retain creative talent in Puerto Rico,” said Sylvette Rosario in a union release. 

A week later, on July 19th, 66 animators at Cartoon Network and 22 workers at Warner Brothers launched public union drives. By early December, both networks voluntarily agreed to recognize their workers’ unions. 

In September, animation workers also won victories in efforts to unionize at WildBrain in Vancouver, which creates popular shows like Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego, Apple TV+’s The Snoopy Show, and BBC’s Fireman Sam.

In November, 68 LA-based animation workers and 11 remote animation workers voted to unionize at Disney Animation studios, winning a victory at Hollywood’s most prestigious animation company. 

Even in Virginia, a “right-to-work” state, 11 animation workers at Whiteboard Geeks voted to unionize in December. 

“As the first animation union in Virginia, we hope this action will not only improve the working conditions at WBG [Whiteboard Geeks] but also help set a new, sustainable path for creatives across the Commonwealth,” said animation worker Phillip Hilliker.

The 1st Virtual Special Effects Union in the Country

Virtual Special Effects (VFX) workers struggled to unionize for years, but many cited the strike for pushing through the first VFX unions in the country. 

In early August, approximately 50 workers announced the first VFX union at Marvel. Later that month, 18 workers at Disney announced that they would become the second VFX unit to unionize.

“The longer the AMPTP strikes continue, the more workers in the film and TV industry will unionize,” tweeted IATSE in August. “We’re seeing unprecedented demand for unionization and this is yet another organizing breakthrough in a sector once thought untouchable.”

By November, IATSE would announce its third unionized VFX unit when VFX workers employed by DNEG in Vancouver, Canada, became the third VFX unit to unionize. On December 14th, IATSE announced the VFX artists behind the Avatar franchise became the 4th VFX unit that had filed for union representation.

The union would also unionize its first video game units at Workinman Interactive, whose engineers work with Nickelodeon, Nintendo, and Disney. With the video game industry making more money than the film and music industries combined, the victory opened possibilities for IATSE.

“This may only be the beginning, but the solidarity I’ve experienced among my coworkers tells me we’ve hit the ground running,” said Workinman graphic artist Diana Thein

IATSE President Matthew D. Loeb credited the strikes with helping to achieve this historic breakthrough in the animation sector. 

 “We are witnessing an unprecedented wave of solidarity that’s breaking down old barriers in the industry and proving we’re all in this fight together. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Loeb. “Entertainment workers everywhere are sticking up for each other’s rights, that’s what our movement is all about. I congratulate these workers on taking this important step and using their collective voice.”

Unlike in the 2007-2008 Strikes, Reality TV Stars Push Back 

During the 2007-2008 writers’ strike, reality TV shows were seen as a way for TV networks to continue to produce content without paying union wages. However, during the current wave of Hollywood strikes, reality TV stars began to talk about unionization. 

Real Housewives of New York star Betheny Frankel shocked the industry in July by calling for a union. Frankel said she only made $7,250 for the first season and received no royalties or residuals. In a viral Instagram post, she called for reality stars to strike in solidarity with the Hollywood workers already on strike. 

“We should just find out what reality shows are in production right now and say, ‘Just stop working.’ Say you’re not going to work unless they take down all the things you’ve done in the past and then we can negotiate for the future,” said Frankel. “This is about the future and getting to control your own content and not accepting these deals anymore.”

After her viral appeal, other reality stars began to speak out about working conditions. In response to public pressure, NBC Universal and its Bravo division agreed to strengthen protocols to protect reality talent.

Now, SAG-AFTRA has announced that they intend to launch a major campaign to unionize reality TV stars.

Producers Move to Unionize 

Amid the strike, over 2,000 producers signed a petition calling on the Association of Motion and Picture and Television Producers to drop producers from the name of the studio’s association.

“The term “Producers” in the AMPTP’s name [Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers] may have historical significance, but it no longer accurately reflects the reality of today’s entertainment landscape,” the group wrote in a letter. “Producers now function similarly to any other group of workers in the industry, striving to secure future projects while pursuing our creative and professional aspirations.” 

For years, many producers, like low-level supervisors in other industries, resented being labeled “bosses.” 

“On a movie set, the only people who have no health insurance or pension contributions are movie producers,” Lifetime TV Producer Cathy Schulman told Deadline. “The executives at the studios, who greenlight the movies, and every single other person working is receiving those benefits. We don’t. Simple things that other unions have been able to achieve…we don’t have yet.”

5,000 Commercial Production Workers Unionize, Inspire Production Assistants in TV and Film

The biggest group to score an organizing victory during the strike was 5,000 nonunion production workers employed by the Association of Independent Commercial Producers. These workers began organizing during the pandemic through a grassroots movement called “Stand with Production.” 

Then, with the momentum of the strikes, they won voluntary union recognition for more than 5,000 advertising producers in late July. 

The voluntary recognition deal also included entry-level production assistants into the union. It spurred the organizers behind Production Assistants United to seek an association for production assistants in TV and film. 

During the strike, IATSE also won a landmark union election to represent production accountants at Netflix, opening the door to organizing payroll workers on films. 

“We are one of the only crafts, if not the only craft, that is forced to work nonunion, except for sometimes,” April Tayofa, a payroll accountant, told Netflix told Deadline

Podcast Workers Build on Gains Amid Layoffs

Podcasting in the U.S. is now a $1.5 billion industry but remains heavily nonunion. The sector has been racked with layoffs in the past year at places like Audible and Spotify. 

“Like our colleagues in film and TV, we in podcasting are part of a system that is exploiting us,” Peabody-award-winning podcast producer Jenny Turner Hall said at a rally in early August when nearly 200,000 fellow media workers were on strike against the studios. 

The strike helped to increase support for the Audio Alliance, a project the WGA East launched in 2020 that has now grown to over 500 audio freelancers signing on publicly as supporters. 

“We need these corporate monoliths like Amazon [with] oversized influence in our business to meet our WGA brothers and sisters at the table and to form an audio collective bargaining agreement with the WGA,” Turner Hall told the crowd. “So mics up, audio writers!”

Sasha Stewart, a WGA East council member and alumna of The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, said she was pushed to do podcasting work to pay her bills while on strike as a Writers Guild member. 

“I was paid 10 percent of what I get paid in television. Ten percent,” Sasha Stewart told multimedia workers at a rally of the Audio Alliance in August. 

Over the past year, podcast workers have organized at places like Crooked Media, Pineapple Street, and Table Read, and now they’re setting their sights on targets like Spotify and Audible. 

Strippers, Broadway Actors, & Movie Theater Geeks

The strike also inspired workers throughout the broader entertainment industry to organize. 

Strippers organizing at Star Garden Topless in LA had struggled for years to win the right to unionize with Actors Equity. However, during the strike, they won a long legal battle to become the first strippers to unionize in the U.S in 20 years, inspiring a group of strippers in Portland to unionize.

Many union strippers began to show up regularly on picket lines, holding memorable stripper karaoke picket lines. Some of the members of strippers’ unions had been members of other entertainment unions. They had worked with those unions to rally support for the strippers.

“On our picket line, we had so much support from members of IATSE and WGA and other unions so it’s been amazing to be able to pay it forward”, a stripper named Charm said in a video released by Deadline in June. 

During the Hollywood strikes, Actors Equity also launched a successful effort to organize over 100 assistant stage managers and production assistants employed by the Broadway League, the leading trade association representing Broadway theaters.

In June, Actor’s Equity also successfully unionized actors, stage managers, bartenders, and servers of Drunk Shakespeare companies in Chicago, Phoenix, Washington, DC, and New York City. The union also organized actors at The Basement escape room in Los Angeles in August. 

In November, members of the Opera Colorado became the first to unionize an opera company in decades. In November, the California-based Singers of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale (P.B.O.C.) signed cards to form a union and join the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA). Before we went to press, AGMA announced another campaign to unionize dancers at the Austin Ballet

Physical therapists who tour with Broadway shows joined IATSE. Goodspeed Musical Theater crew, costume, scenic, hair, and makeup workers unionized in November. In December, IATSE Local 467 increased its membership by 33% by organizing technical production staff at the Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Even stand up comedians started talking about unionizing against the big club owners. 

“Right now is a pivotal time in history for actors and writers to defy crappy pay and working conditions, not to mention lack of health benefits. I mean, who do you guys think you are? Stand-up comedians?” Roast Battle L.A. champion Sarah Fatemi told a picket line of comedians in support of actors in Los Angeles.

Finally, movie theater and film festival workers, who had been hit hard by the closing of movie theaters during the pandemic and have been organizing in recent years, ramped up their efforts to unionize.

Alamo Drafthouse cinema workers in Manhattan and Brooklyn unionized in August, with a Staten Island location filing in December. Meanwhile, Outfest film festival workers in L.A. unionized in September

When North America’s largest genre festival, Fantasia, was in full swing in Montreal in August, workers announced their union drive, citing the energy of the Hollywood strikes for inspiring them. 

“The SAG-AFTRA strike set the perfect tone,” one Canadian staff member told Deadline

Overseas Workers Inspired by U.S. Strikers 

(Korean film workers protest in solidarity with striking U.S. film & TV workers(Courtesy: Writers Guild of America)

The effects of the strike were felt not just in the U.S. but also overseas, as foreign film workers cited the example of the U.S. strike in inspiring them to organize. 

In the U.K., celebrity stylists have begun organizing under the entertainment trade union BECTU, inspired by the strike. This organizing has sparked discussion about whether fashion models could unionize long-term

Inspired partly by Americans on strike, Korean Netflix workers began unionizing. However, Netflix has refused to meet with the Korean union, negatively affecting all Koreans.

“The history of the South Korean [film] industry can be divided into before Netflix, and after Netflix,” an executive at television network Munhwa Broadcasting Corp told the L.A. Times. “They’ve brought in huge budgets and snapped up all the big-name actors and writers and directors.”

Hollywood Strike Impact on Changing Media’s Depiction of Other Workers Striking 

However, the most significant impact of the strike was getting Hollywood stars to become more focused on union organizing and getting more depictions of organizing into mass culture. 

The energy of strikes in Hollywood led Boots Riley to work with Ben Stiller, Lena Dunhma, Bob Odenkirk, Lula Wang, Jay Roach, and Daniel Kwan, among others, to launch the Union Solidarity Coalition (TUSC) in June.

“Watching people honor our picket lines touched and inspired us, and presented us with a model for unity in action,” said the TUSC in a statement. “Though the [Writers Guild] strike is the catalyst for creating TUSC, we feel this is just the beginning of a larger, urgent movement of solidarity between all of the industry unions, and also our coworkers who aren’t part of a union. We want to think big about how we can support each other in the face of a national labor crisis.”

Riley, whose director career has taken off with film portrayals of strikes and mass protests, says that the more he talks to people in Hollywood, the more he thinks we will see more portrayals. 

“What inspires people are other people fighting and especially other people fighting when there’s a way to win,” says Riley. “Those struggles have the ability to teach not only the folks that are involved in the struggle but everyone around them.”

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing over 1,800 stories from 46 states, Elk was the only American reporter in the room with Lula on the morning of the election & traveled with him to the Oval Office. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]