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Up First briefing: A Labor Day look at union fights, wins and close calls

Hollywood writers and actors have spent months picketing outside studio lots over issues like residual payments and artificial intelligence.
David McNew
/
Getty Images
Hollywood writers and actors have spent months picketing outside studio lots over issues like residual payments and artificial intelligence.

Good morning. You're reading the Up First newsletter. Subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox, and listen to the Up First podcast for all the news you need to start your day.

The state of organized labor

A recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of Americans approve of unions. That's slightly down from last year, but still high — and continues a trend that stands in contrast to the last 60 years. Even so, only a record-low 10% of American workers belong to a union. And we're not seeing much union representation on screen, either.

  • Gen Z is the most pro-union generation alive. One poll put its mean union approval at 64.3%, compared to 60.5% for millennials and 57.2% for baby boomers. Many younger workers are embracing unions and the potential protections they can bring to the workplace. 
  • In fact, the U.S. experienced what some declared a "union boom" in 2022, with organizing efforts at companies from Amazon to Starbucks to Condé Nast. Graduate students, rideshare drivers and Medieval Times performers took up the fight, too. But that's not the full story. The overall picture for unions remains bleak a year later, in large part due to labor law that's tilted in favor of employers (and a Supreme Court ruling that dealt unions a blow). 
  • Many unions — and the collective bargaining agreements they try to reach — have found themselves stalled by employers. And that's where the picket lines come in. Right now Hollywood writers and actors are on strike, as are hotel workers in Los Angeles. And auto workers could be next.

What's happening in Hollywood

Writers picket in front of Netflix offices in Hollywood in May as the WGA strike began.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Writers picket in front of Netflix offices in Hollywood in May as the WGA strike began.

A rare dual strike by writers and actors has essentially brought Hollywood to a standstill. Future movies and TV shows are being delayed if not outright canceled, while the Emmy Awards have been postponed from September to January. The strikers have lost work, and very nearly their health insurance, too. And the economic impacts are being felt far beyond LA.

  • How we got here: The Writers Guild of America went on strike against major studios in May, and SAG-AFTRA performers followed suit in July. The main sticking points for both include residual payments, job protections and the use of artificial intelligence. Union negotiators have said the strike could continue into 2024. 
  • What we learned: The most recent dual strike, in 1960, shut down Hollywood for about six weeks and yielded health care, pensions and the residuals system. Experts told NPR they wouldn't be surprised if the actors settle before the writers — but hope they stick together long enough to put adequate pressure on the studios and streamers.  
  • In the meantime: Actors and writers are still picketing in studio lots in LA and New York. Here's a look at some of our favorite signs.  


Note: Many NPR staffers are members of SAG-AFTRA, though broadcast journalists have a different contract than the Hollywood actors.

Stories you may have missed

Strippers rally in support of unionizing strippers from the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood in August 2022.
Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Strippers rally in support of unionizing strippers from the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar in North Hollywood in August 2022.

Dancers at a topless dive bar in Los Angeles unanimously voted to unionize in May, making them the only group of organized strippers in the U.S. It was the final step in a protracted 15-month battle with their employer, the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar.

UPS narrowly averted what would have been one of the largest strikes in U.S. history earlier this summer. It reached a tentative agreement with the Teamsters union to increase hourly wages for full- and part-time workers over five years, a deal its members overwhelmingly approved in August.

Outdoor retailer REI has a progressive reputation — it's even run as a co-op — but hasn't voluntarily recognized its newly unionized workers. Now some are accusing the company of breaking labor laws by threatening and disciplining organizers, which it denies.

Visual effects workers at Marvel Studios in LA, New York and Atlanta have voted to unionize, in a historic first. They hope to become part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) — and get the same protections and benefits offered to other crew members.

Thousands of hotel workers in LA are striking for higher wages and other benefits. That's put some travelers in a bind, including during the weekend of July 4th and ahead of a political science conference — ironically — this Labor Day weekend.

This newsletter was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi. Suzanne Nuyen contributed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.