Striking actors, writers, hotel workers make the personal political

Striking W Hollywood Hotel workers from Unite Here Local 11 walk down Sunset Boulevard on their way to join the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and SAG-AFTRA picket line outside Netflix offices, in a show of union solidarity, on July 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

With employers stalling, unions seek to build public pressure by spotlighting CEO pay and corporate excess.

By Mark Kreidler, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

When Disney CEO Bob Iger said in mid-July that writers and actors were “just not realistic” in what they hoped to achieve through their respective negotiations with Hollywood’s major studios, he practically teed himself up for a public roasting. He received it.

“We’ve got a message for Mr. Iger: I know, sir, that you look at things through a different lens. We don’t expect you to understand who we are,” Breaking Bad actor Bryan Cranston said at a SAG-AFTRA rally in New York days after Iger’s comments.

“But we ask you to hear us,” Cranston said. “We will not be having our jobs taken away and given to robots. We will not have you take away our right to work and earn a decent living. And lastly, and most importantly, we will not allow you to take away our dignity.”

By personalizing the message, writers and actors are trying to galvanize public sentiment — putting a human face on massive corporate riches.

Such pointed barbs may not initially sway a company as huge as Disney, which owns 20th Century Studios as part of a sprawling entertainment empire that did $82.7 billion in revenue last year. But the approach has worked in the recent past, because consumer opinion matters.

And when labor laws are weak and corporate pockets are deep, appealing to public opinion might be the most effective way for unions to raise the stakes for their powerful employers.

Disney already knows. Five years ago, the company was rocked by a New York Times story that described the desperate conditions under which many of its Disneyland employees were living. The story referenced a report, conducted by Occidental College and the Economic Roundtable, that found nearly three-quarters of low-wage workers at the Anaheim theme park didn’t earn enough to pay basic monthly expenses. One in 10 said they had been homeless at some point within the previous two years.

The story sparked a national media frenzy that cast Disney in a harsh light, and within a few months the company began raising wages for some of its park employees. Yet there was no indication that Disneyland had suffered even a slight drop in attendance as a result of the report.

Rather, the company appeared to respond to an image hit, which it feared could do damage to the Disney brand in general — precisely what the coalition of labor unions that represented many of Disneyland’s low-wage workers were hoping the report would accomplish when they commissioned it in the first place.

It was a little bit old school, a straight public shaming. And for at least some of the park’s employees and their negotiating unions, the tactic literally paid off.

Echoes of that strategy can be found in Los Angeles’ high-profile strikes this summer: writers and actors and, to a lesser extent, hotel workers throughout the city and county. In all three cases, the unions involved have learned lessons from the past and brought them into these 2023 job actions.

One of the lessons: With the nation’s labor laws either out of date or toothless, it can be more effective to prosecute the workers’ case in the court of public opinion. And while the massive corporations involved in the negotiations can withstand months of stalemate, they sure don’t love seeing themselves called out by name.

“I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us,” Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, said at a recent rally. “I cannot believe it, quite frankly: How they plead poverty — that they’re losing money left and right — when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them.”

If you’ve been following the story, you may already know that the top executives at most of the major studios — or their behemoth corporate parents — are being showered with wildly lucrative compensation packages. Iger, for example, was paid $195 million from 2018 to 2022 even though he wasn’t with the company for most of last year, according to data analyzed by the Los Angeles Times.

One of the unions’ primary tactics has been to continually publicize the compensation of such top execs. It’s not hard to see why: Netflix co-CEOs Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos each received packages in excess of $50 million in 2022. Brian Roberts at telecommunications giant Comcast, which owns the Universal movie studio, received $32 million, while Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav was paid $39.3 million and had a 2021 compensation package valued at $247 million, including stock options he’d been awarded.

The consistent public dissemination of this kind of information — actors and members of the Writers Guild of America have included versions of it in hundreds if not thousands of social media posts and videos — leaves an impression. When Zaslav prepared to deliver a commencement address at Boston University in May, he was broadly heckled, with some students turning their backs to him and others chanting “Pay your writers” and “Shut up Zaslav” as he attempted to speak.

“I am grateful to my alma mater, Boston University, for inviting me to be part of today’s commencement and for giving me an honorary degree,” Zaslav said in a prepared statement afterward. “As I have often said, I am immensely supportive of writers and hope the strike is resolved soon and in a way that they feel recognizes their value.”

The writers’ and actors’ intent is clear: Make it obvious how drastic is the disconnect between the studios’ lavishly paid executives and the mostly working-class talent that infuses their movies and shows with life, and draws people to watch. But this is also a frank recognition of the deep pockets and wherewithal of the multinational corporations that basically own Hollywood. If the unions can’t financially outlast the studios, the thinking goes, they might be able to shame them into a better deal.

The challenge to the hotel workers is different, in that the CEOs of the corporations and private equity companies that own most of the properties aren’t familiar names or faces. But their union’s tactic is similar: Call out the hotels by brand name, not franchisee.

As UNITE HERE Local 11 has pressed a series of strikes around Los Angeles, its messaging rarely strays. The union says it is pushing for wage increases that will simply allow its workers to live at least somewhat near their jobs, and it consistently calls out the giants by name — Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott — for refusing to recognize the affordability crisis in L.A. (Disclosure: UNITE HERE is a financial supporter of Capital & Main.)

In late July, a union press release noted that “the hotel industry, led by Hilton, Hyatt and Marriott, presented a new economic proposal that did not have one penny more for wages, pension or health care.” The messaging was similar to that of previous releases, keeping the focus on the brands that consumers know and might react to — possibly by withholding reservations.

Public pressure is the labor watch-phrase of the summer in Los Angeles. Whether they be actors, writers or hospitality workers, the strikers are outfunded, and they can’t win a straight war of attrition against the deep-pocketed conglomerates who oppose them. But ask Disney: A little public shaming has a chance to alter the dynamics of the negotiation. In the absence of better alternatives, it’s what the unions can hope for.

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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