labor Why Are SAG-AFTRA and WGA on Strike? Hollywood Runs on Low Pay and Exploitation
Oh, the movies! Whether it's Old Hollywood or the current crop of sparkling stars that light up red carpets and runways, the American psyche has an enduring fascination with movie stars. We have a national soft spot for those rarefied creatures who make their living on the silver screen, who bring delight and wonder to millions, who make us think and laugh and cry into our faux-buttered popcorn — or even scare us silly. We tour movie sets, buy memorabilia, and watch our most beloved films over and over. We follow our favorite stars on social media, buy their merch, and defend their honor online. We track their dramas, swoon over their couture and skin-care routines, root against (or for) the villains, create intricate theories about why they do the things they do onscreen and off, all in the name of, what — entertainment? Appreciation? Jealousy? Perhaps it’s a bit of all three, with some wonder and desire thrown in.
In an era when laptops have supplanted movie screens for many of us, some actors still manage to appear larger-than-life even when they're not towering above us in a darkened theater. There is still something to be said for movie magic, for the power of imagination. And is there anything more marvelous than the thought of seeing your name up in lights too?
But here’s the rub: Many of the people who actually make the movies and television shows we love so much — whose hard work creates stories, sound stages, spectacular costumes, and so much more — are barely scraping by. Their dream jobs may come with a few sprinkles of magic dust, but studio glamour doesn’t pay the bills — and for too many of these workers, neither do their actual paychecks.
Barbie earnings may have officially crossed the billion dollar mark, and made a handful of already rich executives and highly paid stars very happy, but a much smaller percentage of profits trickle down into the pockets of the hundreds of other people it took to bring Barbieland to life. Many of those Barbies are broke.
We all know the classic trope of the actor who, as they pursue their dream, has to also dance or wait tables or drive for Uber or any one of a million different “side gigs” to make ends meet. It’s not just a trope, though; many actors struggle financially and those side gigs are sources of badly needed income.
According to Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the national executive director of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) labor union, actors made a median salary of $46,960 in 2021. Michelle Manos, cofounder and executive director of the Community Solidarity Project, told Los Angeles’s KTLA that 80% of the union’s card-carrying members make less than $26,000 per year — which is beneath the threshold they need to meet to qualify for the union’s health care plan. To put that in even clearer perspective, in California, where many actors and screenwriters live and work, the annual poverty line is about $36,900 for a family of four.
Meanwhile, Hollywood executives, like Disney CEO Bob Iger, make millions. Iger has reportedly received a compensation package of $27 million a year, and has gone on record saying the striking workers are “not realistic” for wanting their demands met.
This situation impacts actors at all stages of their career. In July, Mara Wilson, who shot to fame in the 1990s as a child star in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda, shared that she has “never once made enough to qualify for SAG-AFTRA health care.”
Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney got dragged last year after she said in an interview that she wouldn’t be able to afford her life in LA if she didn’t take brand deals. But Sweeney's comments have since helped illustrate the state of the industry for even a booked and busy working actor. A 2019 study from Nature Communications journal pointed out that “unemployment rates [for] actors hover around 90%, and that as low as 2% of actors are able to make a living out of acting.”
Sweeney told the Hollywood Reporter, “They don’t pay actors like they used to, and with streamers, you no longer get [substantial] residuals.” That latter point is a major factor behind the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, both with memberships that are fighting for their rightful slice of the pie.
Residuals are a form of royalty payment for actors and screenwriters who are paid a sum each time an episode they worked on is reused, as in gets rerun or appears in an overseas market. These workers receive residuals in addition to compensation they are paid to create the original work. Since the WGA negotiated the first television residuals in 1953, this system has enabled actors and screenwriters to make a living, especially those who worked on long-running, now syndicated series like Friends or The Big Bang Theory.
But streaming changed everything. Netflix, Hulu, and the like pay next to nothing for residuals because the last time the WGA went on strike, in 2007 (this was before the concept really even existed), no one understood how huge streaming would become for writers. Now, workers are striking to fix that.
Of course, some of the actors you know and love (or loathe) are doing just fine. Megawatt stars like Tom Cruise, Margot Robbie, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Viola Davis bring home millions per movie, and it can be easy to assume that everyone else in their line of work is at least doing okay. (To their credit, some of these highly paid actors have been very vocally supportive of the strike and have donated millions of dollars to the union’s strike fund, as well they should.) But as has already been established here, those actors are very much the minority. Conflating their boffo salaries with the financial realities for most working actors erases the very real struggle of lower-paid workers to survive.
The film and television industry demands its stars project a veneer of wealth, luxury, and success, selling aspiration even if they’re quietly stressing about paying their bills. "The general public has this false sense that if you work a lot or are a series regular on a hit TV show, that you must be making millions and be well off,” Nicole Bilderback, a veteran actor who has appeared in a number of television shows including Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Dawson's Creek, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, told CBS News. “But we do not make Tom Cruise money."
It’s a tough business, and it’s been made harder due to the avarice of wealthy studio executives who’d rather find new and novel ways to exploit their workforce than to just pay them already. The striking workers are merely asking for a fraction of the profits. Lest we forget, the entire film and television industry would not exist without the countless hours of labor from screenwriters and actors — as well as all the other workers on and off set who take part in these productions, whether it's hair and makeup artists, set builders, production assistants, caterers, cleaning staff, Teamsters who deliver supplies, and many others.
The industry will not survive if these workers are squeezed out. The industry will not thrive if these workers continue to be devalued, disrespected, and dehumanized. If studio executives think they can simply replace living, breathing actors with AI and expect audiences to keep showing up, they have lost all touch with reality.
All that glitters is not gold, and Hollywood’s glamour is as much a trick to keep exploited workers grasping for crumbs as it is a treat for the lucky few who rise to the top. That’s why it's so important to continue to support the striking workers of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. Even a dream job can become a nightmare if workers aren't able to stand together and push back against greedy bosses who’d rather automate the magic away than pay humans a living wage.
As actor, director, and screenwriter Orson Welles wrote, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” This story is far from over and, rest assured, the workers won’t give up until they write a happy ending of their own.
[Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in the New Republic, the Washington Post, the Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL, a book of intersectional labor history. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.]
No Class is an op-ed column by writer and radical organizer Kim Kelly that connects worker struggles and the current state of the American labor movement with its storied — and sometimes bloodied — past.