There is much ado in Hollywood about the July 2023 Writers Strike. Vox.com’s digital headline put it this way. “Hollywood’s writers are on strike. Here’s why that matters.” This strike was a two-for-one effort by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Writers Guild of America on behalf of 11,500 people who write Hollywood shows and movies. While the number of strikers is stunningly small, the economy is large. In the 2007 strike lasting 100 days, the cost to California’s economy alone was $2.1 Billion.
An author is a writer whose written work has been published; the confusion starts there. “In addition to producing published work, people who write are considered authors when they originate the ideas and content of their written work. Accordingly, most authors are writers, but not all writers are considered to be authors. To pile on, just a little, the Authors Guild is not on strike because it is a guild, not a union. The Authors Guild is America’s oldest and largest professional organization for published writers. Regular membership is limited to published authors and illustrators with at least one published book via a traditional U.S. publisher. And self-published authors who have made at least $5,000 in the past 18 months from their writing.
A guild and a union are both groups and associations of workers. However, the difference between them is that a guild is a self-representative body of tradespeople, while a union is an external representative of employees. A guild is mainly composed of merchants, craftspeople, or artisans, especially in the middle ages. A union is a legal entity that negotiates with the employer on behalf of the workers.
Perhaps the most significant difference between unions and guilds is the power to strike. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act states in part, “Employees shall have the right. . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” That said, “the lawfulness of a strike may depend on the object, or purpose, of the strike, on its timing, or on the conduct of the strikers. The object, or objects, of a strike and whether the objects are lawful are matters that are not always easy to determine. Such issues often have to be decided by the National Labor Relations Board. The consequences can be severe to striking employees and struck employers, involving as they do questions of reinstatement and backpay.”
Some have always questioned the morality or ethics of a strike. After all, to strike is to breach a contract, to refuse to do work that you have previously promised to do. Keeping promises is a moral obligation. Nonetheless, the right to strike is also morally right. In context, striking is sometimes the only way for workers to get fair pay and safe working conditions—both of which are vested in moral obligations and ethical concerns. “Some philosophers believe that our moral duties derive from God’s commandments; some that they derive from natural laws; some from very general facts about the human condition, or rationality, or some special properties that things have, independent of what we think of them. These norms about striking – even if they relate to more fundamental moral concepts derived in those ways – were in the first instance fabricated by working-class people themselves. There is no norm against crossing picket lines unless there are people organizing picket lines, no requirement to join a union unless there are people organizing unions. These norms were generated from and enforced by a collective effort from below, in the interests of the oppressed.”
Arguments for and against strikes have risen in every country since the industrial revolution. Strikes are not considered unethical because they do not arise as civil disobedience. They are legal. All democracies have labor laws recognizing the right to strike. “At the start of the industrial revolution, workers faced day-to-day working conditions that were often unsanitary and dangerous, no job security, exploitative wages, no paid time off, arbitrary inequalities, and of course, no pensions. In the years following the Industrial Revolution, workers fought for the right to organize and formed trade unions in order to use collective power to resist unfair treatment by their employers. The overall justification for a framework that allows workers to unionize, and to pursue strike action under some circumstances, is that the possibility of striking provides a safeguard against exploitation, protection for workers in a situation of power imbalance.”
Just over a hundred years ago, in 1921, the Rev. Donald Alexander McLean, M.A., ‘S.T.L., wrote a large treatise titled, “The Morality Of The Strike.” He said, “The subject discussed in this book has been of considerable importance for more than a century and a half. During the last fifty years, strikes in the United States have increased with great and almost continuous rapidity. The average for the last few years is estimated at ten per day. Every strike causes immediate hardship to the employers and employees directly involved, and in the majority of cases to a greater or less number of other persons. Industrial hardship is almost always detrimental to human welfare, inasmuch as men cannot live right and reasonable lives unless they possess at least a fair degree of economic security and a fair amount of economic goods. This is entirely apart from the physical injuries to persons and property which the strike not infrequently entails.”
On the other side of the bargaining table, Mises Wire says, “There Is No Moral Right To Strike.” Their May 24, 2023, wire was strident. “Americans are in a time of rising labor unrest and activism, including multiple unionization campaigns, regulatory and legal changes to make it easier for unionization efforts to succeed, the “Fight for $15” minimum wage agitation, and the Hollywood writer’s strike. However, such discussions and campaigns seldom approach the issues involved from a moral perspective, beyond the implicit presumption that trying to force others to give you a raise must be moral. That is why it is worth reconsidering Leonard Read’s bold argument that “There Is No Moral Right to Strike” in his The Coming Aristocracy (1969): ‘Rarely challenged is the right to strike. While nearly everyone in the population, including the strikers themselves, will acknowledge the inconvenience and dangers of strikes, few will question the right-to-strike concept.’”
The Verge explained the strike’s complicated story. “This strike is different. It’s far more complicated than just wanting a bigger cut of the hit films and TV shows that actors and writers helped create. A rapid shift toward streaming — coupled with the existential threat posed by AI — has created a canyon between what Hollywood writers and actors want and what the country’s largest media companies are willing to give. As Drescher so bluntly puts it: “You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed and not expect the contract to change too.”
The ethics of writing about labor strikes is a sideline, barely a footnote, and certainly not important to either side of the strike line. It will be settled, or not, based on pay rates, not ethics.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.