The “double strike” of 1960—the last time the Writers Union and SAG marched shoulder to shoulder in a labor action against the owners of the means of production and, crucially, distribution—is the clear precedent for the ongoing restart. . Yet while historians like to believe that the past is a prologue, or at least a cautionary tale, for all the parallels between the two strikes, the differences are stark. Today, the tone is more spiteful, the stakes are more serious.
The common thread is the turmoil caused by a new communications technology. In 1960, the disruptor was television; today, it is digital transmission. In both cases, the new revenue stream for producers makes the old terms of service for talent seem like a deal with the devil. Then, as now, artists are looking for a bigger slice of the pie, or crumbs really, spread out to decimal points, from cash flow unimaginable when they signed the original contract. “For guilds, this is a perfectly appropriate extra payment for extra usage,” the trade weekly observed. Broadcasting in 1960 in a proper summary of the battle lines. For the producers, “this is double payment for the same work and completely improper.”
Read the side comment during the 1960 strike (the writers walked out or stopped writing on January 16 and settled on June 25; SAG went on strike on March 7 and agreed to settle a month later, the April 8) is to hear an unmistakable echo of current opinion. “The movie business is on the brink of disaster, and every branch of the business has contributed to that condition,” said Billy Wilkerson, then-owner of The Hollywood Reporter.
In 1960, however, prospects for a quick fix were facilitated by adherence to a set of social norms that social media had not yet shattered. Looking back, one is struck by the moderate tone and measured language of the representatives of both sides. John L. Dales, SAG’s national executive secretary, criticized the “shortsighted and belligerent attitude” of the producers and chided them for giving “the impression that the union proposals are new and revolutionary, when the truth is that these principles are well established.” and accepted”, but did not resort to the insult.
Charles S. Boren, the executive vice president in charge of labor relations for the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP), the forerunner of the AMPTP, emphasized speaking more with sadness than anger. “We deeply regret the action of the Screen Actors Guild in calling a strike, thus endangering thousands of jobs in the industry, as well as industry institutions,” he said, expressing hope that an early resumption of negotiations would “preserve the jobs of many innocent bystanders.” Sure, they were striking a pose, and behind closed doors things certainly got testy, as they always do with arguments over money, but the language of diplomacy kept heads cool and relationships pleasant.
On April 8, when SAG and AMPP announced a tentative deal, SAG Chairman Ronald Reagan, SAG bargaining committee member Charlton Heston, and Columbia Vice President BB Kahane and Boren shook hands before the cameras. The men are beaming, all smiles; you can imagine them all going out for a drink afterwards. Throughout the negotiations, the producers were not so callous as to publicly wish the writers to be destitute and homeless; no actor responded with 12-letter epithets.
Likewise, the rhetoric surrounding the 95-day SAG strike in 1980 over wages and residuals from that day’s new source of revenue—pay TV, videocassettes, and videodiscs—was also all but demure, at least for print attribution, compared to the unfiltered, send-send sentiments elicited by today’s platforms (although actor Ed Asner, characteristically, was as blunt as newsprint would allow: “I think it sucks,” he said of the pact that was finally settled). agreed).
Unfortunately, the strikers of 2023 face an entirely new threat, namely the ghost in the machine that Hollywood itself has been warning us about ever since. 2001: A Space Odyssey, artificial intelligence, which, judging by the proposals put on the table by the producers, seems to have already achieved singularity in Hollywood. SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher was not being a Luddite when she warned that “we will all be replaced by machines,” but it could actually be worse than that. Automation can take the work out of you; AI wants your soul. (The AMPTP’s July 21 characterization of its AI proposal was that it favors “a balanced approach based on careful use, not prohibition.”)
In this sense, the piqueteros are at the forefront of a battle that labor ranks—indeed, the entire American body politic—must attend to. The fight for a better residual contract is a matter of dollars and cents, an agreement can be reached, differences can be divided. The right to self is a non-negotiable, what the Founding Fathers called “inalienable”, that is, a right so fundamental to what it means to be human that it cannot be “alienated”, that is, given up or given away.
You can sign away the rights to a single performance or a script, but no matter how desperate you are for a concert, you can’t sign away yourself. “We had faces,” says Norma Desmond in sunset boulevard. “We want their faces now, and their voice and body,” is what the talent fears the producers will say. That is not a bargaining chip; it’s a deal breaker.
This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here for subscribe.