The tragic death of Halyna Hutchins on the set of Alec Baldwin’s Rust has sent shockwaves through Hollywood and the nation. The Ukrainian filmmaker was struck with a bullet fired by Baldwin on set after being told that the gun was a prop and was safe to use. The incident sparked a conversation about the safety of cast and crew in Hollywood, especially when it was revealed that one of the most prominent labor unions to represent crew members, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, was set to strike only a few days later in protest of poor working conditions and compensation. Their demands are simple, so simple in fact that it is ridiculous they even need to demand these things at all: “reasonable rest periods; meal breaks; a living wage for those on the bottom of the pay scale; and significant increases in compensation to be paid by new-media companies.” The LA Times reports that only days before the tragic accident, union members had voiced concerns about the safety conditions on set, including gun safety, and only hours beforehand many unionized crew members had walked off set in protest.
This terrible and fatal incident is not an isolated one; it is not the first of its kind and does not exist in a vacuum of Hollywood or entertainment-related jobs. The Washington Post reports that 178 employers have faced strikes by their employees just this year in 2021, including, perhaps most famously, Kellogg’s and John Deere. Workers across the nation are on strike for fair wages, better benefits, and an end to practices such as “mandatory overtime,” which are considered by some as direct violations of current labor standards. However, even as these strikes go on, there is a concern that there is some sort of “labor shortage” in America as low-paying and minimum-wage jobs go unfilled and unworked. More than 10 million jobs are open and only 61.6% of the population aged 16 and older go to work, as opposed to February 2020’s 63%. How, then, can we square the conflict between striking workers demanding better treatment while on the job and corporate America’s complaint that “no one wants to work anymore?” First of all, there is the small fact that over 759,000 people have died over the past year and a half due to COVID just in America alone. Secondly, there is the fact that even as the numbers of people going back to work are slowly rising, in a nation with no guaranteed maternity leave or daycare women are more often than not the ones staying home to take on childcare or eldercare responsibilities. And finally, there is the fact that America, and the world, are long overdue for another labor movement.
Most of the world celebrates “May Day” on May 1st. America celebrates “Labor Day” on the first Monday of September each year; a holiday that was codified in a feeble attempt to sever the ties between all of the benefits and protections that we as workers enjoy today and the global socialist movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. Chicago strikers in 1886, many of whom were members of the US’s burgeoning socialist party, sparked a global movement for an 8-hour workday and safe conditions. Later, during the Cold War, the government began to crack down on “communist schemes” which apparently included exercising one’s legal rights to assemble, protest, join a union, and strike. The rest of the world remembers what sacrifices were made to keep children out of factories, to bring women into the workforce at an equal wage as their male counterparts, to limit hours of work to “only” one-third of the day rather than a half or two-thirds. Corporate America does not remember. But America’s workers are beginning to.
I am not the first to critique the manipulative framing of this worker’s rebellion as a “labor shortage,” nor will I be the last. The truth is that a worker’s rebellion is long overdue. For too many, the phrase conjures up a fictionalized hysteria about a sensationalized communist revolution. This is why the “proletariats” in this nation have been demanding rights for years, yet no significant concessions have been made since the 20th century. Workers are systemically overworked and undervalued. The fight for worker’s rights has been going on for so long that at this point, the common rallying cry of a $15/hr minimum wage is no longer a living wage in many places in the country, much less our current $7.25/hr which will get no one anywhere. The common answer to this statement is to simply “get a better job” — yet when workers do, en masse, walk off a job that does not satisfy them, in an attempt to “get a better job,” we are hounded with warning bells about a “labor shortage.” A McDonald’s worker says that they do not want to work for a wage that does not pay their rent. You tell them if they don’t like their job they should quit and find a better one. They do. You are upset that you cannot get a Big Mac whenever you feel like it anymore. Finally, McDonald’s hires another worker, who also does not want to work for a wage that does not pay their rent. You tell them if they don’t like their job, they should quit and find a better one. They do. You are upset at the labor shortage in this country. And the cycle continues. It is not that “no one wants to work”. It is that no one wants to work 60 hours a week for pennies, with no healthcare and nowhere to bring their children in the morning. It is that people are frustrated with the fact that they are not treated as human beings on the job, and have to specifically ask for things like “reasonable rest periods; meal breaks; a living wage.” It is that for so long the issue of class has been swept under the rug, and anyone who tries to bring attention to it is, once again, ridiculed as a crazy communist conspiracy theorist. But now there is no avoiding it. Unfortunately, most people are obligated to work to survive in a capitalist society, yet when one complains of the unfair treatment they face in the process of attempting to survive, they are told they are ungrateful, that they are lazy, that they do not deserve better. It is manipulative and it is abusive. People are demanding better, and I truly hope that no amount of corporate propaganda will blind us to the radical notions of respect, safety, and a life worth living.