“Times have changed, and rapidly. During the depths of the pandemic in 2020 (companies) posted skyrocketing profits… (even with) consumers stuck at home on lockdown… To meet that surge in demand, workers… were leaned on to give up their weekends or to work grueling 12-hour shifts — making extra cash, but losing time with their family and utterly exhausted when they did finally make it home.”
Sound familiar? A quote from an industry analyst talking about conditions on soundstages, to meet the demand of stream-hungry viewers, and those tentatively returning to theaters?
Nope. It’s about cereal. After all, if it was about film work, we’d be talking about shifts longer than 12 hours.
And the analyst in question is Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, writing about a potential wave of labor unrest, strikes and walkouts here in the U.S., after what had been decades of worker dormancy, or certainly hesitancy, in terms of collective action.
Bunch’s Pennsylvania prism was the Kellogg’s factory in Lancaster, where workers in the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union found themselves “stunned” when, after the current contract expired, management wanted givebacks on vacations and pensions, while creating a lower-wage tiered system for newer hires.
This despite the company’s aforementioned record profits, a stock buyback, and the CEO’s $11.6 million payday in 2020, which may even be on the low end these days of what constitutes a “living wage” in executive suites.
However, Bunch wasn’t writing exclusively about the woes of Kellogg’s workers who had been previously threatened with the exporting of jobs to Mexico, should their grumblings grow a little too loud for management comfort. Rather, he was putting the sudden slowdown of Apple Jacks and Eggo production in a larger context of “planned work stoppages — from other traditional factories to hospitals, college campuses, and even Hollywood — (which) could number tens of thousands before autumn is done.”
Indeed, a Guardian article he referenced, which surveyed this particular winter of discontent (well, sure, it’s still autumn, but give it time), even led with… a picture from one of IATSE’s recent car-painting events, which we wrote about previously.
That article noted that the “unrest (which) spans a huge range of industries… would be the largest wave of labor unrest since a series of teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019, which won major victories and gave the American labor movement a significant boost.”
The article notes this “plays out against a backdrop of an economy bouncing back from the torrid experience of widespread economic shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, but one that is still marked by profound inequality.”
And yet a resultant labor shortage may also be “increasing bargaining power amid increased union drives and labor shortages in some industries.”
We may not even have to wait long to see that wave building: As this column was being written, UAW workers at John Deere overwhelmingly rejected a management offer, saying both that future workers would be sacrificed for current gains, and pointing to the disparity in what CEOs pocket, vs. frontline workers. They could be on picket lines before next week’s column is written.
Tractors, Rice Krispies, and a six-episode binge are more related than we think.
Of course, not all the iniquities being addressed are recent ones. As Bunch noted, many of these delayed reckonings also involve the simple question of “how best to elevate an American middle class that’s seen a smaller share of the pie since 1980.”
I will leave it to your recollection (or your study of history, if your cohort is a more recently arrived generation), of what it was that happened in 1980.
And continued to happen, in most of the years, decades — and administrations — since.
However, that other long winter, sparked by the pandemic shutdown, may have also made its own unique contribution to the current situation.
At IATSE’s “Drive-thru/Paint-on” covered last week, Local 600 Executive Director Rebecca Rhine talked about “things we learned, coming out of the pandemic,” including the realization that, with life usually zipping by faster than we think, plague year or no, people were not willing to sacrifice anything, at any cost, to simply hold on to work. The slower rhythms — and this may be why those who structure things in society usually choose against “slower rhythms” — gave people an unexpected stretch of time to consider these aspects of their life, and a sobering backdrop against which to do it.
Actor Matt McGorry, who was there with the IA locals to lend some SAG support, also tied a lot of threads together — even the unraveling climate — when he said that “workers withholding work is the key to saving the planet. These fights are connected.”
Giving a more geographically specific example of what withholding work could mean, Joe Martinez, a member of IATSE Local 44, the Property Craftspeople, told The Guardian that “they wouldn’t have much to film if we weren’t here building everything for them. They need to start looking at it from a perspective of what would happen if we weren’t there. And then it changes the whole dynamics, because there’s no way they would ever have a central product if we weren’t there.”
His sentiments were amplified in a Portraits of IATSE piece from our colleagues at Variety, which replicates much of IATSE’s storied Instagram account, where workers could anonymously share deleterious on-set experiences.
Except these tales, of rolled cars during exhausted drives home, the fear of losing medical coverage on the eve of major surgery, perpetual 16-hour days, and more, are decidedly non-anonymous, with both names and pictures accompanying each shared story.
As new AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler — who ascended to the office after the sudden passing of labor leader Richard Trumka this past summer — said, in a recent interview on NPR’s Marketplace: “If you don’t have the right to come together in your workplace and demand and bargain for better wages and conditions, then the rest of democracy crumbles around us. And I think we’re seeing that, that people have less faith in democracy because of the economy and how it’s treated working people, and people have lost hope.”
So the connection stretches even further, from tractors to Rice Krispies to streamed binges — to, perhaps, the very survival of the country’s currently quite tenuous form of government.
All of which echoes or amplifies what Mr McGorry was saying in the parking lot of Local 700. And when you consider that Shuler is generally considered the more “establishment” choice for AFL-CIO head, and earlier that same interview referred to an OpEd she’d written that said, “the current model of American capitalism basically creates instability and threatens democracy,” followed by ‘welcome, then, (to) a modern labor movement.,’ well, somewhere there’s a Wobbly from a hundred years back, rolling their eyes in the great Union Hall in the sky, thinking we tried to tell them…
So hang on, as our own unfolding roaring ‘20s, will include many elements of last century’s ‘30s and ‘40s, too — speaking of faster paces. Though interestingly, this is one story Hollywood isn’t just telling to the culture at large, but sharing with participants everywhere, all struggling to create a new narrative.
Mark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”