A clip from the sitcom “The Nanny” has been circulating on social networks. It shows Fran Fine – played by Fran Drescher, the current president of the Screen Actors Guild – telling her boss one of her mother’s three cardinal rules: “Never, ever, ever cross a picket line.”
Drescher not only adheres to that rule in real life, but she also leads the union that represents the 160,000 actors who went on strike on July 13th.
The strike of the actors centers on profit-sharing and artificial intelligence protections. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike since May. The writers said their compensation has stagnated during the rise of streaming services. It is the first time since 1960 that the two unions are on strike at the same time.
The strikes raise a question for consumers who want to support the workers: Is watching Netflix or going to the movies the same as crossing a proverbial picket line?
Right now, it seems not.
A line of striking workers in front of a workplace or employer (or in this strike, in front of major studios) is what typically constitutes a strike. Historically, a person supporting these workers would not cross that line.
“The notion that people watching Netflix or going to the movies are crossing a picket line is a stretch — where, after all, are the pickets?” James Bennett, a professor of economics at George Mason University, said. Traditionally, a picket line must include people picketing, he said, adding, “a virtual picket line is a new concept.”
Although unions with workers in digital media or with companies that offer online shopping have called for the idea of a digital picket line, the unions of actors and writers have not called on consumers to stop watching TV and movies on online streaming services or cancel their “Barbenheimer” tickets.
For individual consumers deciding whether to watch, it depends on their purpose.
“The question for all workers and consumers in any strike is: Which side are you on?” said Dan Cornfield, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and a work expert. When workers strike, there are ways for consumers and members of the public to show their support. In some cases, people may march with the workers on the picket line. Or they can boycott.
A boycott might cause financial pain to a company, but it also sends a broader message that people care about fair treatment of workers, Cornfield said.
Adam Seth Litwin, professor of industrial labor relations at Cornell University, said, “We really need to listen to the request of the striking unions.” Looking at the content writers and actors make can prove the point that the streamers and studios need them because of the revenue the shows bring in, he said.
On the other hand, streamers may be able to withstand a long strike because of the large inventory of content they have built up. If customers continue to pay their monthly fees, Litwin said, Netflix and other companies “can hold on for a long, long time.”
And the unions could save a consumer boycott as a tool for a later stage of the negotiations if no agreement is reached, experts said.
As for not going to the movies, that may end up hurting movie theaters, many of which have struggled since the pandemic, as well as their workers. “At the moment,” Litwin said, “it wouldn’t make much sense to pull that off in the theaters themselves.”
However, some people want to make a statement. David Escobedo, a former improvisational actor in Los Angeles who is studying towards a Ph.D. in England, said he felt he had to do something to support his friends on strike and decided to cancel his Netflix membership, even though the unions didn’t demand it.
“To be honest, I really like Netflix,” he said. “‘Black Mirror’ is one of my favorite shows of all time.”
But he added, he wanted to send a message, especially since it can be difficult to get the attention of such large institutions. After canceling, he specified that it was in support of the strikes. “It sends a message that there is support,” he said.
Escobedo said he also used other streaming services — Disney+, which includes many of his young son’s favorites — and that he had no plans to cancel those yet.
Others, including Litwin, the professor of industrial labor relations, think so too. “I haven’t canceled my streaming subscriptions yet, but I’m listening,” he said, indicating he might pursue a boycott if the unions demanded one.
Janine Granda, an actress and member of the Screen Actors Guild who is on strike, said, “We actually want people to go to the movies.” She said she herself is planning a double feature of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” this weekend, with a group of friends.
If the unions change their mind, Granda said, “you will hear us.”