As Hollywood strike drags on, Biden’s relationship with unions becomes complicated

Whether it’s moviegoers or daytime soap opera fans, the situation is the same — don’t expect Hollywood to release much this fall and definitely expect many, many delays.

Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America have been picketing for more than a hundred days over major studios refusing to increase pay and their plans to codify the use of artificial intelligence in film and television projects.

The last time such a prolonged double strike happened was when the two unions went on strike together in 1960 — when the likes of Clint Eastwood and Jane Fonda ruled the big screen — and Ronald Reagan, who was a successful actor before he became president in the 1980s, was serving his second stint as the head of the Screen Actors Guild.

Hollywood isn’t the only industry with its unions on strike — or threatening to strike. Hotel workers and city employees in Los Angeles are picketing, the United Postal Service recently averted the same outcome, and Yellow, a trucking giant, entered a standoff with its union Teamsters.

But now, President Joe Biden, the self-proclaimed “most pro-union president” in American history, is in charge, changing the dynamics of labor relations.

Unions and their mixed reputation

Biden has had to be careful during labor strife not to anger union officials. He has already received endorsements from some of the top unions in the country — including the American Federation of Teachers, National Nurses United and the American Federation of Government Employees — in the lead-up to the 2024 presidential race.

“Democratic politicians still greatly benefit from union electoral support, and therefore usually express strong sympathy for striking workers,” said Taylor Dark, a professor and the political science department chair at California State University, Los Angeles.

For example, in the 2020 election, labor unions contributed $27.5 million to Biden’s campaign while his opponent, former President Donald Trump, received less than $360,000, according to Open Secrets.

The states with the largest concentration of union workers are hardline Democratic states, like Hawaii, New York, Washington, Oregon, New Jersey and California.

In 2022, 10.1% of American wage and salary workers belonged to unions compared to 20.1%, in 1983, signifying a large drop in membership.

But this hasn’t translated to a drop in popularity for unions, at least according to recent polls. The latest Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 6 in 10 U.S. adults said that the decadeslong shrinkage of the unionized workforce has been bad for the country.

Yet, the partisan divide on the issue showed up in the poll — 76% of Democrats agreed with the sentiment, but out of the Republicans, only 40% agreed.

Unions have mixed reputations, which is why it “can be politically perilous to be seen as overly attached to the union position in a collective bargaining dispute,” said Dark, the author of “The Unions and the Democrats: An Enduring Alliance.”

Unions donate hundreds of millions of dollars to fund political campaigns, most of which goes to Democrats. But the relationship that Democratic leaders have with unions is actually a two-way street: Unions have gained from Biden’s efforts to intervene and bail out unions time and again.

In June 2022, the president unveiled a roughly $90 billion federal program, the American Rescue Plan’s Special Financial Assistance, that delays insolvency for the pension funds of private unions by infusing them with billions of dollars of federal money.

Rachel Greszler, an expert at the Heritage Foundation, said Biden is making American taxpayers foot the bill to save private union pensions, which benefits only 6% of the private sector workers.

Hollywood vs. unions — both sides are friends to Democrats

A close political association with a union can also prove to be challenging for lawmakers when “the employers (such as in Hollywood) have their own ties to Democratic officeholders,” said Dark.

For starters, Jeffrey Katzenberg, a Hollywood mogul who has led Walt Disney and DreamWorks, was named the national co-chair for Biden’s campaign, with the goal of sprucing up the president’s image.

Katzenberg, a longtime Democrat donor, gave nearly $620,000 to Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020. Meanwhile, Disney CEO Bog Iger, another top Hollywood ally to Biden, donated $250,000.

Back in 2020, Iger even said he would take a position with the Biden administration if it was the right role for him.

“Giving back in some fashion — serving our country in some fashion — is certainly something that I would consider seriously,” Iger said in an interview.

The Hollywood strike affects Iger’s business, and he has said he views the Hollywood strike as “disruptive.”

“We’ve talked about disruptive forces on this business and all the challenges we’re facing, the recovery from COVID which is ongoing. It’s not completely back,” Iger said in July.

“This is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption.”

He said that the industry struck “a very good deal with the directors guild.”

“We wanted to do the same thing with the writers, and we’d like to do the same thing with the actors,” Iger added.

“There’s a level of expectation that they have, that is just not realistic. And they are adding to the set of the challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive.”

Will Biden get involved in Hollywood strikes?

Still, it appears Biden has thrown some support behind the unions. A White House spokesperson said, “The President believes all workers — including actors — deserve fair pay and benefits,” adding that he hopes both parties reach an agreement.

Democratic Majority Leader Charles Schumer joined the picket line in May, when the strike first started, wearing a blazer over a “Writers Guild on Strike” tee shirt. He called it “a righteous movement.”

Of course, he isn’t the only one. Congressional lawmakers in California and New York are also nudging the studios to listen to the Hollywood unions in hopes of jump-starting an industry that has a big impact on both states’ economies.

Maybe that is why neither the White House nor the Department of Labor have intervened, which may be the safer course of action, said Dark.

But that doesn’t mean the White House doesn’t ever get involved in labor strife. Last December, Biden signed a bill to block a national railroad strike, as permitted under the Railway Labor Act.

“It was tough for me but it was the right thing to do at the moment — save jobs, to protect millions of working families from harm and disruption and to keep supply chains stable around the holidays,” Biden said at the time, earning him criticism from labor unions opposing his interference.

But the president has limited authority when it comes to other unions like the Hollywood Screen Actors Guild.

So, for now, expect delays in the release of television shows and movies while actors and writers continue to push for a new deal with the entertainment industry.

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