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The Importance of Hollywood Labor Unions

You might be familiar with unions for teachers or autoworkers. But what about unions for actors, radio artists, and screenwriters? Because we tend to view Hollywood as a glamorous place, we are tempted to view unions as unnecessary for these types of professions. Yet Hollywood unions were, and continue to be, important players in the careers of Hollywood artists.

When actors first became mainstream in the early 20th century, working conditions for the industry included long work weeks and low pay. Studios essentially “owned” their artists, which meant that rival studios would not hirepage 325 actors or actresses once their contracts ended. Actors were forced to work for the same studio to advance their careers. Negotiations with studios often proved fruitless.

Because strikes can be so disruptive and risky, they are often used as a last resort. Yet, in 1919 the Actors’ Equity Association, a union for theatrical performers, and the American Federation of Labor staged a Broadway strike to protest harsh working conditions. The strike resulted in a five-year contract and promises to improve labor conditions. Although the event happened off Broadway and not in Hollywood, it would inspire other artists to begin forming their own unions.

Working conditions might have improved somewhat for theatrical actors, but radio artists, film actors, and screenwriters still had to bear with hard conditions. For instance, radio artists might do an entire show and then receive only a dollar. Film actors would work around the clock with few (if any) breaks. Screenwriters experienced salary cuts. As individuals, these artists did not have much bargaining power with studios. Realizing that banding together could improve conditions, the Masquers Club (later the Screen Actors Guild of America) was created in 1925. It was followed by the Screenwriters Guild (later renamed the Writers Guild of America) in 1933 and the American Federation of Radio Artists in 1937.

It would take lawsuits, strikes, and hardline negotiations for Hollywood artists to receive more rights. This often required artists to take risks such as suspensions or firings in the hope of better treatment. In 1988, the Writers Guild of America organized the longest strike in Hollywood history after disagreements with producers over payments and creative rights. The strike, which lasted five months, was estimated to cost the industry $500 million.

Now that working conditions seem to have improved, it might be tempting to discard Hollywood unions as no longer useful. Yet, even today, conflicts often occur between artists and studios. For instance, the Screen Actors Guild of America (SAG) watches to make sure that low-budget actors know their rights and are not exploited by producers. Unequal treatment still happens in the entertainment industry. For instance, minorities and female actors/actresses still tend to be paid less than Caucasian and male actors. The introduction of new media venues, particularly the Internet, may also warrant additional negotiations.

To address these challenges, many unions are banding together to address mutual concerns in the industry. In 2012, SAG united with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). This increases the bargaining power of the combined union. Additionally, Hollywood unions work closely with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which represents a federation of labor unions. The merger between SAG and AFTRA creates solidarity in the industry’s unions through the formation of an Industry Coordinating Committee. This allows for coordination of activity among 10 or 12 major unions within the industry.

Although these unions are for movie stars and other artists, the goal is much the same as for other unions across the nation. As the industry expands, Hollywood unions feel that they must work together to secure benefits for their members while striving to arrive at mutually beneficial agreements with studios, producers, and other stakeholders in the entertainment industry.

Discussion Questions

Why are Hollywood labor unions considered necessary?

Why is striking often avoided if possible?

Why do you think unions in the entertainment industry are banding together?

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