The gig economy is a disaster for workers. Hollywood’s unions can help them learn to fight back

The Screen Actors Guild statue stands in front of the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.
The Screen Actors Guild statue stands in front of the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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When I was in my mid-20s, I left a corporate nine-to-five job to move to San Francisco and work on a movie called Darwin Awards. I spent the next decade bouncing from project to project, deep in the trenches of Hollywood—America’s dream factory.

I worked mostly as a location manager and scout. This meant I found, negotiated, and got permits for spots where movies and TV shows would film. As such, I was part of the swarm of freelancers hovering around the studios, trying to carve out enough honey from the hive. 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.

All this is to say that 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. The only way to make freelance and contract work sustainable is for those at the bottom to stand together to prevent exploitation from those at the top.

A history of Hollywood unions

Unions form when the workers grow tired of being underpaid and overworked—both time-honored traditions in film and TV productions. The oldest union in Hollywood, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE for short, formed in New York City in the mid-1880s during Vaudeville-era Broadway.

The Teamsters, who get their name from the team of horses that drove their wagons, and have a hand in on-land freight delivery for all industries across the US, formed around the same time and developed a close relationship with Hollywood because of the large amounts of people and equipment that need to be transported on a daily basis. 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. Artists were tired of being worked to the bone so studio heads could reap the spoils of their creative output—and took a cue from their blue-collared brethren. Though varied and many, all of Hollywood’s organized labor stands as one, for the fair and equal treatment of its workforce.

Long before he was known as the Great Communicator, friend to big business and godfather of trickle-down economics, Ronald Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild—and very much pro-labor. Speaking to a gathering of Hollywood labor unions in 1946, he said, “Every one of us here realizes that the one hope for progress and a liberal outlook in America and social gains and social welfare depends on organized labor. Right here in this room for the first time is the one thing that the employers have feared most in Hollywood … here is all of labor shoulder to shoulder and side by side exactly the way it should be.”

Entertainment industry workers back then understood that unions were necessary if they were going to carve out a living. The same is true today—particularly because large-scale Hollywood production often takes a long, meandering route.

The Hollywood mode of production

With a typical movie, somebody writes a script, a director gets attached to the project, and financing is secured. Major motion pictures can take years, sometimes decades to make—but when the light turns green, producers must put together cast and crew in a big rush. After that, on the shortest projects, there’s at least two months of production, two additional months of post-production, and then two more months to secure distribution and for the media blitz. Half a year later, we’re all eating popcorn and watching aliens try to turn the Empire State Building into a mating cocoon. 

At each stage, and sometimes in between, portions of the crew rotate in and out largely based on the project’s needs and skill sets of the workers. Each person working on a production, on set or elsewhere, has a very specific talent and is there to do very specific job. Adam Davidson, a journalist who worked as a consultant on the 2015 movie The Big Short, wrote in the New York Times about how he saw the people on set as a kind of assembly line: “The team had never worked together before, and the scenes they were shooting that day required many different complex tasks to happen in harmony: lighting, makeup, hair, costumes, sets, props, acting. And yet there was no transition time; everybody worked together seamlessly, instantly. They just got to work, and somehow it all fit together.”

And it’s nice work if you can get it. But 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. 

The unpredictability of the industry means that worker protections are paramount. 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. The 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.

Today, even as non-entertainment union rolls are shrinking, the Hollywood guilds and unions continue to hold sway. And when the studios and producers try to take too much away, the unions act—as they did during the Writer’s Strike of 2007-2008, a 100-day walkout over the fair share of the profits in digital media in the wake of Hulu and the introduction of Netflix streaming in 2007. Earlier this year, the Writer’s Guild of America threatened a walkout over similar problems as the nature of media distribution completes its shift to digital.

I was in Hollywood and a card-carrying member of the Teamster Union during the 2007-2008 strike. Since the movie I was on was already in progress, I wasn’t affected. The writers’ absence really only had an effect on new scripted content. That said, if at anytime the call had gone out from the WGA asking other unions to stand in solidarity, the drivers, crafts people, animal trainers, and casting people of the Teamsters knew we’d stand with the writers—as would the members of all the other trade unions. This was despite the fact that I couldn’t have picked a member of the WGA out of a lineup. Hollywood workers know that we are only as strong as we are united. And the same should be true for the 21st-century gig economy. 

What is a workforce?

For many companies, freelance and contract workers have emerged as an appealing, cheaper alternative to full-time employees. But absent the kinds of protections afforded by union membership, companies like Uber and Lyft are redefining the very nature of a workforce. In the gig-economy model, companies are not beholden to provide their workers with standard wages, health care, or retirement benefits, management owes nothing to a force of independent contractors.

Countries such as France and China, along with US cities like Seattle, are pushing back against this form of reclassification. “There is a global battle royale taking place involving Uber or Uber-like firms, seeking to a) unionize them, or b) move away from the Uber management concept that Uber drivers are independent contractors,” says Gerald Horne, professor of history at the University of Houston and author of Class Struggle in Hollywood 1930 – 1950. That’s because the downside of the gig economy is clear: “If you’re an independent worker, you’re on your own.”

The issue is particularly pressing as the number of freelancers grows. The Freelancers Union is not a union in the traditional sense, but an advocacy group founded to fight for the rights of freelancers across all industries, according to Caitlin Pearce, their director of advocacy and member engagement. It’s a good thing, too. The Freelancers Union’s 2016 yearly report estimated 55 million people, nearly one third of the entire labor force were in the on-demand workforce and as independent contractors, lacked basic worker protections and rights.

The false promise of flexibility 

Uber promises their workforce control over their destinies. “The more you drive, the more you make,” it’s right there on the website. Want to make more dough, put in more hours. But there are only 24 hours in a day. What happens when your car breaks down, or you get sick? There are no wage protections, no benefits, no guarantee of work. All business expenses are the sole responsibility of the worker. In the gig economy, one has to wonder: What does one give up for all this “freedom?”

Unionization has been slow to arrive in the gig economy—in part because of successful anti-union rhetoric that suggests collective bargaining limits a person’s individual right to choose their own destiny. In 2015, the Teamsters helped get a law passed in Seattle that would allow Uber drivers to organize. But corporate interests and trade organizations fought back. Uber unleashed a media maelstrom, emails to the drivers, advertisements on their app. The company even produced podcast all about how unionizing would take away drivers’ freedom and harm drivers’ ability to run their independent “businesses.” The US Chamber of Commerce got in on the act and successfully blocked the implementation of the law in April this year. The reasoning is that independent contractors are free to conduct their jobs entirely in the manner they see fit; as such, companies like Uber have no obligation to them.

But if the vague IRS definition of an independent contractor applies to ride-sharing service workers, Uber should not be able to require drivers’ cars to meet certain standards, and shouldn’t be able to kick drivers off the system if their ratings fall below 4.6 stars. If I want to drive around fares in a seafoam green, 1995 Ford Festiva with flames painted on the sides, piled floor-to-ceiling with beanie babies, that’s my right as an independent contractor, and my bad decision to make as a small business owner. Thing is, Uber doesn’t want a driver like that to be associated with their brand.

US federal judge Robert Lasnik thinks that because Uber’s drivers have those details dictated to them, they do not meet the definition of independent contractors. He threw out the Chamber’s decision in the case this past August. He left the injunction that stops Seattle from moving forward with the law in place, however, as a case brought by 11 Uber drivers against efforts to unionize works its way through the courts.

Another 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. To this, Hollywood history says: ”Yawn, what else you got?”

Catherine Fisk, law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, points out in her article for the University of Chicago Law Forum that Hollywood studios and productions tried and failed to apply this argument to writers numerous times throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It didn’t stick. According to Fisk, “it is an error to assume that the free market cultural ethos of worker entrepreneurialism in the gig economy is at odds with the basic framework and assumptions of labor and employment law.” And the proof is in the pudding: Hollywood keeps making movies and TV shows, and we keep watching them.

I got $75 a day on Darwin Awards, with no overtime—despite plenty of extra hours worked. Still, after that first movie finished, I received constant counsel from a variety of production veterans representing all departments, that joining a union would limit my options, dictate the nature of the work I could accept, and put my hard-earned dollars toward lining the pockets of some fat-cat bureaucrat. Kate Fortmueller, professor of film studies at University of Georgia who specializes in Hollywood labor, notes that these are prevalent anti-union arguments. “My students look at unions as a barrier to entry, rather than as a way to get into [production work],” she says. And that’s the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, to quote a line from one of my favorite movies. That an organized, unified labor force somehow limits worker freedoms, that unions destroy industries.

Standing as one

Everyone wants to work in the movies. Without the protections of my union, producers would find people willing to do the job I did for pennies on the dollar of what they paid me. The same holds true for Uber, Lyft, and other on-demand labor organizations. When a company has access to an unlimited pool of workers for a position with little to no barriers to entry, they’ll always be able to find people willing to do more work for less. That’s because people want work, period.

I got into the Teamsters while working on Step Brothers in 2007. The Teamster way requires an applicant to work 30 days non-union as a sort of an apprenticeship before they can officially join. During that month, I took home just a tad less than $3,000. The very next month, the first in my career where I was a full-fledged Teamster, my pay jumped 300% to nearly $9,000 with full health, dental, and benefits. This is because my union had a contract with the producers of the movie guaranteeing a minimum wage and benefits package to anyone with the title of assistant location manager. Since I was now a member of the Teamsters, I fell under that contract.

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.

As Fisk wrote, “Independent, entrepreneurial, short-term workers have bargained collectively for eighty years to the significant benefit of themselves and the industry in which they work, and neither labor law nor antitrust law should be seen as precluding collective bargaining in the gig economy.” If today’s gig-economy workers need proof of the possibilities offered by collective bargaining, they need only look West. 

Correction: This article has been updated to provide Caitlin Pierce’s accurate title, and to correct details about the Freelancers Union’s founding.