Summer of strikes

How the SAG-AFTRA-WGA labour action is affecting Canada  

Canadian union leaders, analysts, and film and television workers alike are closely following the labour strike in Hollywood.

Even if it’s not our strike, they say, domestic markets are feeling the disruption.

“In Canada, it’s not one story [across] all production centres,” explained John Lewis, International Vice President & Director of Canadian Affairs for IATSE, “the union behind entertainment,” which represents 36,000 members nationally.

While British Columbia’s sector, predominantly a service industry, was “hit very hard, very quickly,” Ontario and Manitoba markets were doing well until recently, he said. And Quebec was stabilized by its own domestic industry. “But now we’re essentially locked down in every major jurisdiction.”

Although Lewis can’t put a dollar figure on the impact, “we should have 40 shows shooting right now [in BC] and there’s none,” he said. “That gives you a sense of things.”  

But in terms of the broader discussion, “it’s not a shock we’re seeing this kind of disruption if you take a look at the last few years and the incredible changes to the industry.”

From streaming services as a distribution model, to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented increase in cost of living and artificial intelligence (AI), there’s been a big “impact on expectations and what people are willing to settle for in collective bargaining,” he observed. “And not just in the [film] industry, you see it everywhere.” 

The Hollywood strike at a glance 
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) screenwriters motioned to strike on May 2, 2023, with the Screen Actors’ Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joining the movement on July 14, effectively shutting down productions across the entertainment industry.

Organizing against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents major studios and streamers like Amazon, Apple, Disney, Netflix, NBCUniversal, Paramount, Sony and Warner Bros. Discovery, the SAG-AFTRA-WGA union members are protesting low residuals and pay, as well as the use of generative AI tools in production.

Meanwhile, the 28,000 union members of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) are facing a double whammy: in addition to the “chilling impact” of the American strikes, they have been in a lockout with the Institute of Canadian Agencies (ICA) since April, 2022.

“Commercials are very important in our industry,” ACTRA’s National President Eleanor Noble explained, as this work normally subsidizes actors between film and television gigs. While the union’s main focus is working to end the advertising lockout (which is before the Ontario Labour Board), Noble confirmed that ACTRA is “keeping a sharp eye” on what’s happening south of the border.

“No union ever takes a strike action lightly [but] the issues are really important,” she said. “We absolutely stand 100 per cent in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. Their issues are our issues; their fight is our fight… but our collective agreement comes up in 2024.”

Actra Toronto
From Left to Right: Michelle Hurd (SAG-AFTRA National Vice President, Los Angeles); Eleanor Noble (ACTRA National President); Lauren Holly (Dual ACTRA and SAG-AFTRA member); and Marie Kelly (ACTRA National Executive Director)

ACTRA’s hope is for the AMPTP to get back to the table and “make a fair and respectful deal,” Noble added, believing that there will be “a bigger trickle down” on Canadian film and television markets if the strike continues – impacting not only actors but directors, behind-the-scenes workers, catering companies, hotels, and entire cities and towns that serve American productions.

In the face of this, she would like to see more funding and support for Canadian content to help out-of-work talent, “get us on a global market, build out a star system,” and create “incentives to stay here.”

“We’re not on strike. Canadian productions can still be done,” she said. “But we need that funding.”

The Motion Picture Association of Canada estimates that foreign investment in production is a $7.58B market (2021).

Making a modern contract

SAG-AFTRA-WGA are calling on the AMPTP to negotiate a “modern contract that addresses modern issues,” which includes a couple of key concerns: generative AI, residual compensation and long work hours.

On the AI front –  arguably the hottest headline to come out of the US strikes –  Noble said that ACTRA members are already fielding requests to have their image and likenesses scanned or, worse, discovering it’s already being used in instances they didn’t consent to.

“It comes down to it being immoral and unethical to think that producers can take our image, voice, face, likeness and use or manipulate it in any way they want,” she said. “As a performer, [this is] how we make a living. 

“We need control, we need to consent, and we need compensation.”

For its part, IATSE struck an AI commission to cut through the “hypotheticals,” soliciting subject matter experts to examine the impact of this technology on post-production, animation and design work.  

“[The union is] looking into how we can minimize the impact on employment patterns [and] humanize the introduction of AI,” Lewis explained, “but in order to do that, we need to be educated.”

As far as compensation goes, “the basic, fundamental structure of residuals no longer applies in a streaming world,” he said. 

“As an industry, we have to grapple with that: What is the new model? How are we going to determine the formula where there isn’t a secondary or tertiary market? Because you can’t just take money out of the system.” 

Lewis also mentioned that a new generation of workers are thinking more deeply about “their choices and work life balance,” calling for strict prohibitions and penalties associated with long work hours.

Despite decades of mediation and arbitration experience as a former vice chair of the Ontario Labour Relations Board, Lewis can’t predict how the Hollywood strike will end.

“Negotiations are never easy but I have never seen an environment that is so difficult,” he said.

“Going into bargaining, you typically know what the expectations of your members are, there are certain patterns of settlements and whatnot. You can throw those out the window right now.”

Lewis called this climate a ‘post-COVID hangover’ that permeates beyond the film and television industry. “In society, there’s a mood [about the] amount of corporate gouging that took place [and] people are ticked off right now,” he explained.

“I’ve never seen it before in my career.”

The other interesting element in all of this, he added, is that “we’re organizing like crazy. More workers are looking to unions as a possible solution to some of their unhappiness with how work is going.”

An era of collective bargaining

Charles R. Acland, who is a professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University whose most recent book American Blockbuster: Movies Technology, and Wonder (2020) has been following the strikes with fascination since the spring.

“It’s interesting that a strike in the United States received such public and popular attention,” he observed. “[It has become] a platform for people to think through labour issues that are happening in their own circumstances… a vehicle for conversation and debate [about] what it means to be a worker.”

Professor Acland believes a successful, modern contract would work through issues that have always been a major concern for cultural workers: How do you sustain a livelihood? What portion of a production do you own? And how is your ownership going to be recognized immediately and into the future?

“But one of the things that this summer has demonstrated is the importance of unions, collective bargaining [and] guilds,” he noted. “There’s a resurgence after many, many years of declining union membership…

“We’re starting to see a return to understanding that having a strong collective labour position allows people to go into individual contractual situations with a bit more heft, [and] in a better position.”

As of Aug. 28, SAG-AFTRA leaders said they are ready and waiting for AMPTP to resume negotiations but, after 46 days of strikes, there has been no contact.  

Laura Beeston
Laura Beeston is a writer, editor and content strategist from Winnipeg. In 10+ years of media making, she's worked on a variety of projects but was notably a breaking news reporter for The Winnipeg Free Press, The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star, and an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail. Since 2017, she's worked as multimedia content producer and is a media advisor and mentor at The Link.
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