The truth behind the Hollywood strike hate

The current labor dispute makes it clear

Noah Berlatsky
Tuesday 18 July 2023 06:52 BST

The movie and television actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, declared a strike after talks with the studio broke down. The actors joined the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike since May. It’s the first time in 63 years that both groups have been on strike.

Actors had barely picked up picket signs before they came under political attack from the right. Jon Miltimore, managing editor of the Foundation for Economic Education, sneered in response to a pro-union tweet by John Cusack that “Hollywood millionaires talk about labor like they’re labor leader Jimmy Hoffa.” Republican Senator Ted Cruz mocked a picture of actor Mark Ruffalo on the picket line, tweeting “You wouldn’t like me when I’m whiny.” How droll. Others railed against “Hollywood elitist hypocrisy“ and claimed well-known actors were virtue signaling.

Conservatives claim to be attacking rich entitled millionaires when they go after Hollywood actors. But don’t the American right usually love rich people? Ted Cruz has boasted about being friends with billionaire twitter CEO Elon Musk (who whines about twitter’s fortunes all the time). Cruz also joined wealthy real estate heir - and former president - Donald Trump and Republicans in the Senate and House in pushing through a massive tax cut for the rich. If the right thinks the wealthy are whiny hypocritic elites who need to shut up, it has a funny way of showing it.

It seems conservatives dislike wealthy people who are leftists (like Cusack and Ruffalo) or who support unions. But conservatives also, consistently, attack Hollywood elites – by which they tend to mean actors and celebrities. They’re generally less focused on studio executives like Warner Bros’ David Zaslav, who made $498 million between 2018 and 2022.

So why should Cruz and company support tax breaks for the ultrawealthy like Zaslav, but see Cusack and Ruffalo as entitled? The issue is that actors and celebrities are workers. If you are on the side of capital, workers are not supposed to be wealthy, and aren’t supposed to be demanding better wages or benefits. Workers are supposed to do what they’re told and accept whatever conditions capitalists choose to impose.

Actors and sports stars are unusual in that they are workers who can make very large salaries – and who are in highly unionized professions. When quarterback Colin Kaepernick led protests against racist police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, conservatives like Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly were quick to label him as “disrespectful.” One common talking point in connection with the protests was that Kaepernick and other athletes who were kneeling should be grateful to the United States for giving them the opportunity to make money. But, in addition to a seeming desire for people to stay in their rightful place, I think the outrage was because the football players were workers. Workers (especially Black workers) aren’t supposed to dictate terms, or talk about politics, or ask for anything. They’re just supposed to put their heads down and obey.

We are seeing this dynamic again with the writers’ strike. People like Ted Cruz attack Mark Ruffalo for being entitled; they may say that he’s harming rank and file workers by supporting a strike that puts less wealthy actors out of work. But the fact is, it’s the rank and file who voted for the strike. And they voted for it because they want to increase minimum film payment rates, and to prevent studios using AI likenesses of background actors without payment or consent. Those are issues that affect less affluent actors much more than they are issues for stars like Mark Ruffalo.

Those criticizing union strikes while applauding billionaires want workers to be thankful they’ve been allowed to retain the fruits of their own labor, and most definitely do not want them to demand more or speak out against injustice.

Those attacking actors on picket lines are not doing so because the actors are wealthy, which many of them aren’t. They are doing so because actors are workers, and therefore should not speak out. It seems, however, SAG-AFTRA disagrees. That’s why its members, famous and not famous, wealthy and poor, are on the picket lines.

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