Contrary to popular belief, history can—and does—repeat. The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG-AFTRA) are currently both on strike. While both organizations have experienced their share of labor negotiations over the last few decades, this marks the second time that the two have gone on strike at the same time. The first instance occurred more than half a century ago in 1960.
The 1960 Strikes
The similarities between the timelines of the strikes of 1960 and today are eerie. WGA’s strike of 1960 began on January 16, with the SAG strike commencing nearly two months later on March 7. The writer’s strike of 2023 began on May 2, with the actors following suit a little over two months later on July 14.
Much like the screenwriters of today who demand better residuals from streaming platforms, screenwriters of the 1960 strike demanded residuals for theatrical films shown on public television, both inside and outside the U.S. Like the writers, the actors, too, were lobbying for residuals from television reruns of their movies. But unlike the rows of public demonstrators we are seeing today, very little picketing was done by either union.
The actor’s strike of 1960 was also just as star-studded as today’s. SAG’s president at the time was none other than future U.S. President Ronald Regan. Other striking members included John Wayne, Fred Astaire, Debbie Reynolds, Marilyn Monroe, and many more. The classic films these actors starred in—such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Easter Parade, Singin’ In The Rain, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—are still enjoyed to this day.
Tony Curtis (Some Like It Hot) and Janet Leigh (Psycho) hosted a union meeting in their own home to explain negotiation details to actors on the fence about going on strike. The strike saw its own share of stalled productions, including the comedy The Wackiest Ship in the Army and the dramatic Butterfield 8, which went on to become MGM’s most profitable film of 1960.
While negotiations for the Actors’ Guild wrapped up on April 18—only about a month after it started—the writer’s strike lasted almost five months and did not see success until June 12. The actors received residuals for any movies that were sold to TV but only after the strike, none from the years prior to the union win. Additional benefits included the creation of a pension fund and better health protections. The WGA saw similar benefits, with the addition of a 1.2% licensing fee on the studio’s part.
If the strikes of 1960 are any indication, today’s union members may have a number of months yet to walk the picket line—but only time will tell if this year’s strike will play out the same way.
What Makes the Current Strikes Different?
As chagrined as writers and actors surely were in 1960, none of them could have anticipated what the entertainment industry would be like in the 21st century. Streaming services are slowly replacing live television, and the debate over AI in the film and TV industries is reaching an all-time high.
The WGA strike may have taken a back seat to the much more recent SAG-AFTRA strike, but both unions remain strong in their resolve and persistent with their demands. Union members continue to be resilient even as studio executives try to label their demands “unrealistic.” Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, came under fire after stating his opinion on the matter in an interview with CNBC. According to Iger, “There’s a level of expectation that they have, that is just not realistic. And they are adding to the set of the challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive.”
As Disney is a giant in the film and entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the unions’ demands would make much of a dent in their annual revenue. Conversely, studios outside of the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), such as A24, are currently proceeding with production. SAG-AFTRA is cooperating with this studio and other independent film and TV companies as long as they abide by the terms of their last offer to the AMPTP. This begs the question: How can huge entertainment companies claim an inability to afford the demands outlined by WAG and SAG-AFTRA if smaller studios are able to continue producing content under these same terms?
Fran Drescher, perhaps best known for her work in The Nanny, is the current president of SAG-AFTRA. She gave an impassioned speech on July 13 in which she accused entertainment moguls of prioritizing profits over employees.
Most Actors Are Not Rich
The vast majority of professional actors are not millionaires. The A-listers we see on every other movie poster and magazine cover represent only a small fraction of what many imagine to be an extremely lucrative career choice. With the actors’ strike in full swing, more and more of the less well-known actors are coming forward to disprove this assumption.
Working-class actors often make far less than their A-list counterparts. Minor or background roles in movies and TV shows are also extremely competitive to obtain and, due to the inherent inconsistent nature of the work, do not provide a livable wage. This is especially prevalent in states with higher demands for acting jobs like California, Florida, and New York. Coincidentally, these three states are also known for being rather expensive places to live.
On top of these worries, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland recently told CNBC that the AMPTP presented a proposal to replace background actors with AI models. Actors would be scanned and paid for one day of work. Their images would then be used whenever and however the studios deemed necessary. Naturally, SAG-AFTRA was less than enthused. Thus far the AMPTP has been extremely obstinate to the union’s proposals.
As protests and negotiations continue, it remains unknown how long the strike will continue before a deal can be made. SAG-AFTRA’s current strike rules mean that there may be a lull in new films and TV shows. This will also mean fewer panels at Comic-Con this year, as union actors working under TV and theatrical contracts will not participate in any promotional events per the strike’s guidelines. This restriction also includes promotions through social media and awards shows.
AMPTP has gone on record to state that they are willing to wait until the striking WGA employees return to work out of desperation, rather than negotiate terms with the unions. The writers may have more to deal with as the year progresses; a recent tweet by Chris Stephens, a comedian and recent newcomer to the TV writing business, showcased that the line of trees outside Universal Pictures received an out-of-season trimming. Said trees would have provided much-needed shade for picketers in the middle of a ninety-degree heatwave. While NBCUniversal claimed that the trees were trimmed in order to prevent wind damage, L.A. city officials are currently investigating the incident.