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A week before Taylor Swift’s six-night show in Los Angeles, a union representing the city’s striking hotel workers made a public appeal for her to postpone the concerts to support a campaign for better wages and working conditions.
After Swift failed to respond to the request, one of the union’s officials said fans coming from out of town could face an “ungodly scene” at dirty hotel rooms during the run of LA shows, which started on Thursday.
“If I were a Taylor Swift fan I’d be camping out because the hotels are going to be a mess,” Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11 union, told the Financial Times. “That’s what happens during a strike — there will be no services, the rooms won’t be clean. We’ve been in those hotels after our strikes and they are an ungodly scene. We just can’t allow the hotels to have this windfall.”
The possibility of Swift’s fans staying in dirty hotels is just one of the potential flashpoints in what union activists have dubbed the US’s “hot labour summer”.
Nowhere in the country is the industrial action hotter than in LA. While walkouts by Hollywood’s writers and actors have made international headlines, the Californian city is also facing rolling strikes by hotel workers and fast food employees. Industrial action by dockworkers, which would have dealt another blow to the US supply chain, was narrowly avoided in June.
The Hollywood strikes mark the first time since 1960 that screenwriters and actors have hit the picket lines at the same time. But the LA walkouts were also notable for the apparent solidarity between unions that would seem to have little in common, scholars and labour activists said.
The hotel workers, many of whom are on an hourly wage and speak English as a second language, have picketed alongside members of the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, a group whose loudest pro-strike voices include actresses Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence.
Other unions, including those that represent LA’s teachers and nurses, have also been offering their support to strikers. Nurses have provided air-conditioned vans and water at “cooling stations” outside Hollywood studios, where people have gathered at picket lines despite temperatures reaching 32C in the past week.
“They’ve been showing up for us and we’ve been showing up for them,” said Demetri Belardinelli, an actor and one of the 160,000 members of the SAG-AFTRA union which voted to strike in July and issued a list of demands. “That’s what makes this moment what it is — the cross-union solidarity. It’s not just entertainment unions.”
The Hollywood guilds insist that many of their members, particularly those who have joined the industry since the advent of streaming, share some of the same working-class economic problems as their counterparts at other unions.
Shorter seasons for streaming programmes often mean less work than writers enjoyed during the heyday of broadcast television. Actors and writers complain that royalties have declined sharply in the streaming era. Meanwhile, the cost of living in LA has risen sharply, with the median price for a home reaching $1.2mn in June, according to Realtor.com.
“At the core of our strike is the question of who will be able to live in this city,” said Petersen of Unite Here Local 11. “Will those who work in the city — those who cook and act and write and teach — be able to afford to live in Los Angeles? That is the question.”
Belardinelli, a strike captain outside the Disney lot, said the actors union was even having trouble filling the picket lines at studios on the west side of LA, home to some of the city’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. “We are all, I think, struggling to afford homes, or even to rent in our city right now,” he added. “Our pickets on the west side are less staffed because none of our members can afford to live in half of the city. It’s very indicative of our situation.”
LA’s union participation is strong compared with elsewhere in the US. Workers at the city’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center received average pay rises of 17 per cent last May after a five-day strike. In November, 48,000 graduate student employees of the University of California gained wage increases of up to 66 per cent after a six-week strike.
“There’s a real generational change going on,” said Tobias Higbie, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There’s a lot more interest in inequality — and they actually want to do something about it.”
The Hollywood strikes have been particularly bitter. Studio executives accuse the unions of weakening the industry just as it was beginning to recover from the Covid pandemic. Actors and writers fear that the studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, will deploy artificial intelligence technology to take work away from them.
The unions have even accused Universal Studios of trimming trees to reduce the shade they provided to picketers, while the Writers Guild has complained about construction on Universal property reducing the amount of sidewalk space available for protests. Universal confirmed it had restored some walkway access this week and said the tree trimming was routine.
Against this angry backdrop, the studios and unions took a break from talking to “cool off” after the actors and writers went on strike on July 13. The impasse came just as the strong box office figures for Barbie and Oppenheimer were rekindling excitement in the industry. But there are concerns that the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon could be the high-water mark for Hollywood movies for some time. Sony has pushed the rest of this year’s film slate into 2024 and other studios could follow suit.
Some speculate that the strikes could last until November or even into January. A glimmer of hope surfaced early this week when the AMPTP asked the Writers Guild to talk on Friday. But even that prompted both parties to issue press releases criticising the other side.
Local companies that depend on Hollywood are hoping for a speedy resolution to the industrial action. Business has slowed at the Sotta restaurant, a popular destination in Burbank, Los Angeles County, for screenwriters and other workers at nearby studios.
Amber Dedman, the restaurant’s general manager, pointed out the empty tables in the dining room during one lunchtime this week. “Before the strike we could barely fit all our customers in here,” she said. “Our business has definitely been affected.”
Dedman has been giving picketers a 10 per cent discount and allowing them to use the toilets. She was happy to help them, she said, but hopes the strikes will end soon. “Our community relies heavily on the engines working at the studios.”