After spending my college years planning to write for TV, I l finally left Hollywood about a year ago to devote my life to leftist activism. As an ex-Angeleno and a leftist, I was excited to read about the #PayUpHollywood hashtag, which has been exposing the corporate greed in Hollywood that puts assistants through so much abuse, and often for zero reward. I actually wrote on this subject almost a year ago in my DI article “After #MeToo: Is it time for Hollywood activism to tackle capitalism?” I see the significance this long-overdue conversation holds for those who work in LA’s monolithic industry, though I also see the further steps ahead that will need to be taken for this movement to gain practical traction.
The hashtag #PayUpHollywood started when Liz Alper, a member of the Writers Guild of America board, took to Twitter to talk about the low pay and grueling work conditions faced by assistants in Hollywood. Since everyone in Hollywood will tell you that the only way to become a writer or director in Hollywood is to work as an assistant for about a decade, limiting assistant jobs to those who have the wealth to work for less than a living wage creates a barrier to entry for everyone but the 1% in Hollywood. The moment this issue is having isn’t so much about these problems being new as it is about the weak position of labor in entertainment, and the breaking point so many people have reached.
Let’s look at what other industries have been doing in the past five years, shall we? Teacher’s strikes have been sweeping the nation for the past couple years, with the latest being, I’m proud to say, in my hometown of Chicago. With the help of Bernie Sanders, the Chicago Teacher’s Union has been continuing its historic leadership of teacher’s unions on the national stage. With the help of Bernie Sanders, grad students at schools like the U of C and NYU have been striking. With the help of Bernie Sanders, Disney has been forced to bring up wages for its theme park employees to $15 an hour. With the help of Bernie Sanders, the same has happened with Amazon. Bernie also stopped by the picket lines of the United Auto Workers of Detroit as they protested GM cutting their health insurance.
This is a good time for full disclosure: Bernie Sanders, whose Workplace Democracy plan I’ll discuss below, is my chosen candidate for the primary. I have a recurring donation set up for his campaign, I canvass for him every weekend, and I own several pieces of his merch. At the time of this writing, I’m also still freaking out about how I recently saw both Bernie and AOC at a rally, but that’s another story. Coming up soon…
Basically, I’m anything but objective on worker’s rights, which is why voting for Bernie and why I’m writing this story. If you want someone more “objective,” go to the Huffington Post and read about this issue there. Oh wait, they’re not covering it.
To counter early-21st century clicktivism, let’s look at the early-20th century labor movement. Strong unions, frequent strikes, and unwavering solidarity won us freedoms such as the weekend, the eight hour workday, and Social Security. It’s telling, though not exactly surprising, that these victories that were considered to be basic rights for workers until recently are now being eroded in the gig economy at the weakest moment for labor since the labor movement at the turn of the last century. The key here is that these activists had a clear picture of the class war they were fighting and rienforced that picture through solidarity across the lines of divisions like race and gender–often imperfectly on that last detail, since America tends to fail at that most of the time.
So in light of all this, what exactly do these assistants need to do to make good on the potential of #PayUpHollywood? First, they need a union, and not the kind of flimsy unions that are currently shorting everyone in Hollywood. What we can see in other sectors is a strengthening of union power that has not had a precedent for about a hundred years. These unions then put that strength to use through their most powerful tool, the general strike. This will be difficult because the most common catchphrase of LA bosses is that hundreds of people would line up to take any of their underlings’ jobs. Fueling these last two points is the fundamental third: class-consciousness. The workers of these sectors have begun to understand themselves not as pre-wealthy people but as poor people who will never even have savings or a retirement fund if they don’t fight like hell to squeeze them out of the rich.
As a vehicle for spreading the all-important class consciousness that unions and strikes are founded on, Twitter can and is often excellent in that regard! Social media spreads ideas (memes) through huge populations at unpredecented speeds. All the workers out there who have been waiting for an articulation of their problems can find the start in #PayUpHollywood. …So why do I have a sinking feeling that this seed of class-consciousness might be nipped in the bud by Hollywood’s working conditions?
To be clear, I am using all of my CBT skills to redirect that pessimism toward hope and support for my comrades in Studio City, in Burbank, and in Glendale. Hollywood functions as the ideological engine for capitalism–the films and shows that are given the most air time, or really any air time at all, are the ones that uphold narratives of individualism, of meritocracy, and that Game of Thrones nihilism that tells us we’re all just pretending to have better natures while we wait for the opportunity to stab each other in the back. These narratives create the widely accepted and rarely questioned belief that humans are incapable of working together, and that they only pursue their basest self interests such as money, power, sex, etc.
As media professionals, we’re taught to feel like we’re walking into King’s Landing when we enter our first industry job; other people’s advice is always along the lines of “these people aren’t really your friends,” “they’ll step over you to get what they want first change they get,” or “they’ll only want to be friends with you if it benefits them.” Not exactly the prime conditions for worker solidarity.
The other ideological issue here is the allure of fame. By definition, someone who moves to Hollywood to work in entertainment is trying to get famous. If you identify yourself more with the boss who exploits you than with the workers the boss exploits along with you, you’re probably not going to be crazy about joining a strike. If you’re convinced your big break is right around the corner, you might want to protect those huge bonuses people in your soon-to-be income bracket get to receive at your current income bracket’s expense. To put it simply, everyone in Hollywood is living in the five or ten years from now fantasy of what their lives will be after they can quit their day job or get that promotion out of their assistant gig. Why would they care about the poor?
This is where I trot out John Steinbeck’s ever relevant quote,”Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This has been changing to a huge degree in other parts of America, but the place that creates our mainstream myths has farther to go and more obstacles in its path. That means that if #PayUpHollywood doesn’t lead to Hollywood assistants putting the group’s interests first, this frustration could just dissipate as everyone goes back to their privatized, individualistic lives.
Bringing new types of faces into the elite is one kind of battle, redistributing the wealth being earned by studio execs to the people those execs are in non-consensual dom/sub relationships with is quite another. If you’re waiting for Hollywood’s liberal elite to respond to these tweets with the same alacrity that they’ve responded to the calls for women writers, don’t hold your breath.
I can’t tell you what every Hollywood assistant is like, but the trend I saw was centrism, apathy, and uncritical acceptance of middle-road policies. This makes perfect sense, since it reflects the population of Hollywood workers as being, by definition, the people rich enough to work in Hollywood and mainstream enough in their thinking to not have a problem with that until 2019.
This does not have to be true. I’m writing this article to you, a reader of an entertainment industry magazine. You may well be in a position to turn the tide in the narrative warfare that keeps Hollywood’s class consciousness from developing. We could build a mass movement of workers and ensure the dignity of assistants, factory workers, and teachers alike with your help! After all, as a Hollywood worker you have nothing to lose but your healthcare. Or wait, you probably don’t have healthcare. Then you have nothing to lose but your Social Security. Or wait, that’s being gutted as we speak. What about your artistic integrity? Hmm, no…
Well–I guess you just have nothing to lose!