Actors better off for the strike?
I'm having lunch with Tucker Carlson today and suggest we form a superstar tabloid news media union.
A-Listers Try to Put Lipstick on the Hollywood Strike
The showbiz and auto walkouts only illustrate the false promise of a return to unionization.
By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
Nov. 17, 2023
Now that the Hollywood actors strike has been settled, Meryl Streep reportedly has proposed that union head Fran Drescher run for president of the U.S. At least that’s how the former TV nanny tells it in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. And why not? The first lesson of politics is, no matter what happens, declare victory.
The joyful yipping and clapping emanating from SAG-Aftra is why they call them actors. But the audience also has a role, known in the trade as willing suspension of disbelief. In this case, it will be quite a job to believe the actors strike was a success.
The union demanded a 20% raise over a three-year period; the studios offered 13%. The end result was 15.75%, a number that seems like it should have been reachable without a strike perhaps over a second cup of coffee.
The union also won protections related to artificial intelligence, a subject hardly mentioned until the guild needed a McGuffin to inflate the stakes for news reporters. These protections are so reasonable, actors may already possess them under common law. Actors must approve any “digital replicas” of themselves. They can expect to be paid extra if a replica is used to create new action, not if used simply to tidy up a scene for which the actor was already paid.
Again if you believe Ms. Drescher, George Clooney personally exclaimed to her his awe and wonder at the union’s success in extracting contract gains it values at $1 billion. But this is gross. The proper measure is net: How much did the strikers gain that they wouldn’t have gained anyway, minus the costs of the strike itself?
Here the outcome doesn’t look so good. In New York City alone, a state agency reports, the strike cost 17,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in income, more than the deal’s benefit over three years. Nationally, the U.S. Labor Department found a loss of 45,000 jobs in film production from May to October. The Milken Institute estimates that Los Angeles-area workers will lose $6 billion in income and more if delayed projects are permanently canceled.
But a circle is complete as far as this column is concerned. Ms. Streep may now be ready to carry a triumphant nanny on her shoulders to the White House. As I noted in July, she signed a letter with other celebrities accusing the guild of squishiness and practically demanding a strike. An embarrassed Ms. Drescher (she had just proclaimed that talks with the studios were proceeding swimmingly) overnight reclothed herself as a militant.
Alas, having established their working-class bona fides by hitting send, the A-listers had a second epiphany. The strike they championed was proving a disaster, benefiting nobody, causing only job losses and production shutdowns. Hollywood was already overproducing shows and losing billions. Union leverage was close to nil. Some studio executives even welcomed a strike as a way to cut costs.
On a Zoom call, Ms. Streep, Mr. Clooney and others urged Ms. Drescher to settle. She did, and the Zoomers apparently now are expiating their own role by portraying the strike as the greatest win since Waterloo.
The outcome makes a telling contrast with the overlapping walkout by auto workers in Detroit. Unlike the Hollywood strikers, the United Auto Workers scored a genuine bundle of what economists call “rents”—contract terms sufficiently generous to cripple the long-term prospects of their employers.
The UAW unquestionably delivered for its members, at a cost. With wages 60% higher than their nonunion domestic and foreign competitors, the Detroit companies will continue their slow wastage into pickup-truck companies whose finances depend entirely on the 25% import tariff imposed on foreign pickups by LBJ in 1964. The future will belong to the transplants and Tesla and their workers. Still, credit the union for a deal that left at least one party better off, which is more than you can say for the Hollywood strike.
Sadly for some on the left and right, these outcomes should gut a current fantasy. This is the idea that a return to private-sector unionization, especially in manufacturing, can be a new-old model of middle class prosperity. Yes, if you can do away with nonunion competition and technological innovation, as well as overlook the cost to consumers and other workers whose opportunities are reduced. But that’s not the world we live in or that our politics makes possible.
“Income inequality” is a beloved slogan but it’s a poor way of framing any societal problem if you’re not one of those people more concerned that some are rich than that some are poor. For everyone else, opportunity and helping outfit people to benefit from opportunity is still the formula that works.