What can Hollywood teach indy workers?


Hollywood Workers and Unpredictability

Indy work, the gig economy, and organizing for worker rights aren’t the first things that come to mind when you think of Hollywood. Nevertheless, as W. Harry Fortuna, a former movie location manager and scout, writes in an article for Quartz: “The gig economy has existed in Hollywood for a very long time—and today’s Uber and TaskRabbit workers could learn a lot from Tinseltown.”

Fortuna tells the history of worker organizing in Hollywood’s gig economy from the earliest union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), “formed in New York City in the mid-1880s during Vaudeville-era Broadway,” to the Teamsters (who were connected to Hollywood by their transportation of people and equipment to various film sites), to “the talent guilds, like the Directors, Writers, and Screen Actors Guilds, came decades later, at the end of the Silent Era of movie-making in the 1930s.”

What Hollywood has to teach indy workers, according to Fortuna, is that “Hollywood workers know that we are only as strong as we are united.”

What each of these eras had in common, and what gave workers a shared struggle around which to organize, was the unpredictability of the work. To this day, what unites actors, script writers, and film crews is the fact that “on-demand labor drives every TV show, movie, commercial, and scripted program in the US. The entertainment industry is entirely dependent on the availability of a talented and dedicated labor force that is ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

Indy Workers, Unpredictability, and Organizing

Fortuna could be describing any indy worker in today’s gig economy when he writes:

“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Hollywood workforce with niche specializations whose services are not in consistent demand. When you’re not working, you hope to get a call—maybe temporary work for a day or a week or a month, or, if you’re lucky, steady work on a hit TV show that could last for years.”

Given the unpredictable nature of work in Hollywood:

“Without the promise of high-quality, consistent healthcare, access to pension and saving plans, and guarantees to prevent a race to the bottom wherein younger, hungrier, needier workers can underbid wages and take away jobs, it would be nearly impossible to retain the kind of talent that’s required to make Hollywood magic a reality.”

This is exactly where unions and guilds, like the Indy Worker Guild, come into play: “Unions ensure that those dedicated to the work know what to expect and have a say as to the minimum of what protections and benefits are provided.”

What Hollywood has to teach indy workers, according to Fortuna, is that “Hollywood workers know that we are only as strong as we are united.”

Anti-Union Rhetoric and the Gig Economy

Fortuna notes that part of the reason worker organizing has been slow to take in the gig economy has to do with the anti-union rhetoric put forth by companies and businesses eager to take advantage of cheaper labor.

Some of the same reasons given against organizing indy workers today were used by the Hollywood executives of old. For instance, one of the “key argument that gig-economy corporations make against unionization is that their business models will be ruined if workers are classified as employees rather than independent contractors.” Because independent contractors are not legally able to organize unions, we created the Indy Worker Guild, as an advocacy organization for workers in the gig economy.

Fortuna responds that “to this, Hollywood history says: ‘Yawn, what else you got?’” He notes that “Hollywood studios and productions tried and failed to apply this argument to writers numerous times throughout the 1930s and 1940s.” Given that we continue to enjoy movies and television, and that Hollywood continues to thrive, this argument rings hollow.

Worker Unity

Learning the lessons that the history of Hollywood worker organizing has to offer, the key takeaway for indy workers in the gig economy is that only in uniting together can we win the benefits and protections the unpredictable nature of our work makes necessary.

As Fortuna puts it, after joining the Teamsters Union: “There was no difference in my job responsibilities, and no change in the amount of hours I worked per day. The only difference was whether it was me, alone, against management, or me as a part of the team of thousands with similar responsibilities and interests.”

The Indy Worker Guild stands ready to bring together thousands of indy workers with similar responsibilities and interests in healthcare, paid leave, workers’ compensation, and so on. Please, feel free to contact us if you’d like to tell us your story or share ideas you might have about organizing. To quote Fortuna one last time: “If today’s gig-economy workers need proof of the possibilities offered by collective bargaining, they need only look West.”


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