Pluralistic: Hollywood is the single best example of mature labor power in America; On the Media on the enshittification (pt 1) (06 May 2023)

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Animators walk the picket-line during the Disney Animator's Strike in 1941.

Hollywood is the single best example of mature labor power in America (permalink)

The Writers Guild is on strike. Hollywood is closed for business. The union's bargaining documents reveal a cartel of studios that refused to negotiate on a single position. This could go on for a long-ass time:

The writers are up for it. A lot of people are saying this is the first writers' strike since 2007/8, but that's not quite right. That was the last time the writers went on strike against the studios, but in 2019, the writers struck against their own talent agents – within the space of a week, all 7,000 writers in Hollywood fired their agents. They struck against the agencies for 22 months.

The agencies had consolidated down to four major firms, two backed by private equity who loaded them up with debt that could only be repaid if the agencies figured out how to vastly increase their profits. They did so, by unilaterally switching the way they did business with their clients. Instead of taking a 10% commission on the creative wages they bargained for, the agencies started to take "packaging fees" from the studios for putting together a writer, director, stars, etc. These fees came out of the same budget that the talent got paid from, so the higher the fee was, the less the talent made. Soon, some showrunners were discovering that they were getting 10% and their agents were getting 90%!

The agencies weren't done, either: they were building their own studios, and planning to negotiate with themselves on behalf of their clients. The writers said fuck this shit. They issued a code of conduct ordering the agencies to knock all that shit off. The agencies swore they'd never do it. Why should they? Every job these writers had ever done came through an agency, and the agencies were staffed with the toughest, most obnoxious negotiators on the planet.

They were sure the writers would cave. After all, the top tier of writers had been handled with kid gloves by the agencies and not ripped off to the same extent as their jobbing, workaday peers. They'd break solidarity and the union would collapse, right?

Wrong. Twenty-two months later, every one of the agencies caved on every single point. Bam. Union strong.

(Want to learn more? Check out Chokepoint Capitalism, Rebecca Giblin's and my book about creative labor markets:)

Now the writers are back on strike and it's triggered a predictable torrent of anti-worker nonsense ("striking writers will lead to public indifference to torture!) (no, really) (ugh):

One common theme in these bad takes is that writers aren't real workers, like, you know, coal miners or Starbucks baristas. They're coddled intellectuals, and haven't the intelligentsia been indifferent to proletarian struggle since, you know, time immemorial?

This is wrong in every conceivable way. For starters, it's ahistorical. Lord Byron and innumerable other toffs and poets and such were right there with the Luddites, demanding labor justice during the Industrial Revolution, as Brian Merchant writes in his outstanding, forthcoming history of the Luddites, Blood in the Machine:

But you don't have to look back to the stocking frame to find this kind of solidarity. As Hamilton Nolan writes in his newsletter, "Hollywood is the single best example of mature labor power in America":

The entire Hollywood workforce, from grips to carpenters, costumers to plumbers, teamsters to medics, is unionized. That includes writers and actors (I'm a member of IATSE Local 839, AKA The Animation Guild). I live in Burbank, the entertainment industry's company town (fun fact! The "Hollywood" studios are largely over the city line, in Burbank). Walk down Burbank Boulevard, Magnolia Boulevard, or any of the other major roads, and you'll pass many union halls.

Burbank is a prosperous place. That's thanks, in part, to the studios, whose entertainment products are very profitable. But working in a profitable industry is not, in and of itself, a guarantee that you will get a share of those profits. Some of the most profitable industries in the world – e-commerce, fast food, logistics – have the lowest paid workforces.

Burbank is prosperous because the unions made sure that everyone – the grips, the costumers, the animators, the actors, the writers, the teamsters and the pipefitters – gets a decent wage, decent health care and a decent retirement. My pal the set-dresser who worked crazy hours schlepping furniture around sitcom sets for decades? All that work did bad stuff to his joints, which meant that he needed a hip replacement in his forties – which was 100% covered, including his sick leave while he recovered. He was able to take early retirement in his late fifties, with a solid pension, with his health in excellent shape and many years of happiness with his partner stretching before him.

That's what unions get you: a good job that might be hard at times, and the costs of your work are borne by the employer who profits from your labor. As Nolan writes, the point of unions is to "make sure that people! Are! Not! Disposable!"

Unions deliver the American dream. As Pete Seeger sang in "Talking Union Blues":

Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do
You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you
You got to build you a union, got to make it strong
But if you all stick together, boys, it won't be long
You get shorter hours, better working conditions
Vacations with pay. Take your kids to the seashore

We tend to focus on wages in union discussions, but unions aren't merely about getting better pay, it's about making better jobs. When LA teachers went out on strike in 2019, wages weren't at the top of their list – they bargained for greenspace for every school, replacing rotting portables with permanent buildings, ending ICE entrapment of parents at the school gates, social workers and counselors for schools…and wages.

I really like how Nolan puts this. The way that the studios make money has changed: streaming is clobbering ad-supported TV and movie theater tickets. The studios are adapting. The workers want to adapt, too. The studios would rather "treat[] their work force as a disposable natural resource to be mined, used up, and then abandoned, as business dictates."

A union gives workers "the same ability to adapt to changing industries that companies already have." The studios want to leave workers behind. Unions give workers the collective power to say, "No. You’re taking us with you."

Union workers are wealthier than their non-union counterparts, but that's not just because of higher wages. As Nolan writes, "Unions make sure that the people get to adapt to changing industries, and not just the investors and the business owners."

[Union workers] have a far greater ability to build coherent, long-term careers, as opposed to a constant treadmill of unstable short-term gigs. In non-union industries, businesses can just act like ships cutting through a desperate sea of workers, scooping up whoever they want and then tossing them overboard as soon as it’s convenient. In a union industry, though, the companies are forced to deal with the labor force as an equal. The workers have their own damn boat.

Advocates for market capitalism insist that market forces increase prosperity for everyone. They say that, in the end, having corporations serve their shareholders results in corporations serving everyone.

But a comparison of unionized and nonunionized industries reveals the hollowness of that prospect. Hollywood is wildly profitable and it pays every kind of worker well. That's because workers have solidarity across sectors and trades. Striking writers like John Rogers are calling on supporters to donate to the Entertainment Community Fund:

The Entertainment Community Fund supports everyone else who is affected by the work-stoppage, all the other creative and craft trades whose work has been halted by the writers' struggle. If you want to support these workers, make sure you select "Film and TV" from the drop-down menu when you donate (we gave $100):

Because all the workers are in this together. As Adam Conover explains in this amazing CNN clip, David Zazlav, the head of CNN parent-company Warner-Discovery, made a quarter of a billion dollars last year, enough to pay all the demands of all the writers:

And Carol Lombardini, spokesvillain for the studio cartel AMPTP, told the press that ""Writers are lucky to have term employment." As John Rogers says, she "wiped out the doubt of every writer who wasn't sure this negotiation really IS so important, that it actually IS about turning us into gig workers."

The stakes in this strike are the same as the stakes in every strike: will workers get a fair share of the value their labor creates, or will that value be piled up in the vaults of $250,000,000/year CEOs? It's not like the studios especially hate writers – like all corporations, they hate all their workers. The same tactics that they're using to make it so writers can't pay the rent today will be turned on every other kind of Hollywood worker tomorrow – and when the writers win this one, they'll support those workers, too.

There's a lot of concern about AI displacing creative labor, but the only entity that can take away a writer's wage is a human being, an executive at a studio. As has been the case since the time of the Luddites, the issue isn't what the machine does, it's who it does it for and who it does it to.

After all, as Charlie Stross points out, a corporation is just a "Slow AI," remorselessly paperclip-maximizing its way through the lives and joy of the flesh-and-blood people who constitute its inconvenient gut-flora:

(Image: LA Times, CC BY 4.0)

Jean-Leon Gerome's painting Pollice Verso, 1872, depicting gladiators in an arena with noble onlookers giving a thumbs-down gesture. The tapestry before the nobles has been replaced with a US $100 bill in which Ben Franklin's mouth has been replaced by an Amazon smile logo.

On the Media on the enshittification (pt 1) (permalink)

I'm many kinds of writer – novelist, journalist, activist, editorialist, screenwriter – but at core, I'm a blogger. Every bit of interesting stuff that crosses my path gets turned into a blog post, which gets lodged in both a WordPress database and my mind, where it rubs up against other interesting stuff and crystallizes into longer, more considered pieces:

It's an iterative process, and it follows a predictable and often very exciting life-cycle. First, I encounter an idea in the wild that niggles at my attention and I try to capture what it is that's making it so interesting. The act of writing about some little fragment for strangers makes me think about it harder. That means that I end up making connections to other ideas that I've thought about, and things I continue to encounter in the wild.

As I write about the subject over and over again, over days, then weeks, then years, it gets sharper and more focused. I get better at talking about it, sure, but I also get better at thinking about it. This is an activity Bruce Sterling once called "advancing and demolishing potential political arguments that have never been made by anybody but me":

At a certain point, the idea "tips." The act of repeatedly writing about it, relating it to new stuff happening in the world, makes it clear enough to me that it becomes clear enough to explain it to other people, too. Then I'm no longer "advancing and demolishing arguments" for myself – everyone gets in on the act.

That's what happened with enshittification. I coined the term while on vacation last summer:

Though I was just tossing the idea off idly, it stuck with me. I dusted it off in November to talk about Amazon and ad-tech:

Then in December to write about an aspect of online speech that is wildly important but rarely considered:

A week later, the rapid-onset enshittification of Twitter got me thinking about the subject again:

And again, just before Christmas, thanks to a magisterial essay by Cat Valente:

The idea percolated over the holidays, and I revisited it in January:

And then, in late January, I had a conceptual breakthrough, thanks to some excellent reporting on TikTok by Emily Baker-White:

That was the essay that broke the idea out of my own endless argument with myself into the wider world. Wired reprinted it, using the Creative Commons license on the piece:

(All the essays on my Pluralistic blog are licensed Creative Commons Attribution-only – you can republish them, too, including in commercial forums, provided you follow the license terms!)

After that essay went viral, I started to hear from lots of people about the subject and it kicked into overdrive – you can see how it went after that by looking at the "enshittification" tag on my blog:

The best part of this phase of the process is the move from arguing with myself to having serious discussions with others. And I just got to spend a week doing just that, with some of the smartest, most challenging discussants I could ask for: the producers of On the Media, and its host, Brooke Gladstone.

I'm a giant On The Media fan. I don't think I've missed an episode in decades. And I loved Gladstone's graphic novel about media theory:

So I went into this discussion with high hopes, but those hopes were met and exceeded in every way. My conversations with Rebecca Clark-Callender and Katya Rogers brought these ideas into a new focus for me, and then, over the course of many hours, Gladstone and I put them into an orderly progression that was transformative.

On The Media turned those discussions into an hour-long, three-act series. They've just aired part one, "Why Every Platform Goes Bad":

It's a superb piece of radio (the FCC_mandated bleeps on the "shit" in "enshittification" are hilarious). Though I'm mostly a sole practitioner, it's a forceful example of the power of collaboration, from Gladstone's challenging questions to the superb editing.

The rest of the series will air in the coming weeks, and I'm told they're going to air it as a complete hour this summer. I hope you'll give it a listen!

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Disney’s in more Pooh

#20yrsago Spam-fighting and the First Amendment

#20yrsago BSA fights piracy with condescending mascots!

#20yrsago Why is a raven like a writing-desk?

#15yrsago Dear Virgin Media: if Net Neutrality is “bollocks” then you can get stuffed

#15yrsago Think Like a Dandelion: advice for understanding reproductive strategies in the Internet era

#15yrsago Senator Ron Wyden puts ISPs on notice: “think twice” before screwing up Net Neutrality

#10yrsago Former Tory mayor admits to beating up woman who videod him parking illegally

Colophon (permalink)

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