Demand for Speedy Services Strains Workers, Triggering Protests Across Industries

by Gabriel Martinez
Labor unrest

Unrelenting 12-hour shifts for six consecutive days and woefully low wages have been complaints echoed by employees across a wide range of professions, from UPS delivery personnel to Hollywood actors and writers.

The underlying issue driving this rising labor discontent is the massive shift in job expectations due to technology. Businesses are scrambling to keep pace with customer demands for fast and convenient services, thereby profoundly altering the nature of work in these industries.

The transformation was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed retailers to pivot to online platforms and heightened competition among entertainment companies in the streaming sphere. Workers, often on the brink of exhaustion and suffering from inadequate remuneration, are now giving consumers a glimpse into the realities of creating binge-worthy content and facilitating doorstep delivery of goods.

Across numerous sectors — ranging from delivery services and coffee shop employees to airline pilots — increased consumer demand meets persistent labor shortage, resulting in common issues of overwork and underpayment. Employees are fighting against mandatory overtime, grueling schedules, and the business dependence on lower-wage, part-time, or contract workforce.

Hollywood screenwriters and actors are protesting for the first time together in four decades against the disruptive impact of streaming on entertainment economics. This shift has led to a drop in wages and has put pressure on content producers to deliver more, faster, with less manpower.

Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, a screenwriter and showrunner part of the Writers Guild of America negotiating team, said, “Wherever tech companies set foot, they seem to disrupt without caring about the impact.” The union has been on strike since May, with the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists joining the protest recently.

The conventional system of residuals, or ongoing payments from reruns and subsequent screenings of films and shows, doesn’t apply to streaming services, making it challenging to gauge their popularity. As a result, streaming services offer minimal residuals, leading to screenwriters receiving tiny paychecks.

Actor Adam Shapiro, known for his role in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” admits that while the vast number of roles offered by streaming platforms initially justified lower wages, the need for a sustainable compensation model became pressing as streaming became the entertainment industry’s future.

Shapiro, a seasoned actor of 25 years, settled for a contract offering 20% of his typical rate for his role in “Never Have I Ever,” viewing it as an excellent global opportunity. Unfortunately, he and others in the industry are realizing that continuing on such pay scales will not cover their expenses.

Another contentious issue is the increasing practice of “mini rooms,” where only a handful of writers are employed during pre-production, often for shows that may take a long time to be approved or may never see the light of day.

Sanchez-Witzel, who co-created Netflix’s “Survival of the Thickest,” noted that traditional TV shows employed sizeable writing teams throughout the production. However, Netflix disallowed her from retaining her five-person team beyond pre-production, leading to round-the-clock rewriting work with just one other writer. “I’ll never do that again,” she asserted.

Sanchez-Witzel found parallels between her experience and those of UPS drivers, who also threatened to strike recently. A provisional contract agreement reached last week between UPS and the Teamsters prevented the strike.

Jeffrey Palmerino, a UPS driver from Albany, New York, highlighted forced overtime as a significant concern during the pandemic, as they grappled with an order surge comparable to the holiday rush. Drivers often had no idea when they would end their day or get their two days off each week, while 14-hour days without air conditioning became routine.

The Teamsters managed to secure several concessions, including pay raises, air conditioning, and an end to forced overtime on off days. However, the success of the deal in triggering improvements in other sectors remains uncertain, especially in industries without the economic significance of UPS or a large union’s power.

Unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have stalled as both companies staunchly oppose these movements. Nonetheless, labor protests may gain more traction following the UPS agreement, predicted Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University.

She commented, “The pandemic exposed the flaws of placing consumer convenience above all else. People started to realize that behind every online order, there’s a worker who has to fulfill that order and make our comfort possible.”

This report includes contributions from Leslie Ambriz, a video journalist at Big Big News, reporting from Los Angeles.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Labor unrest

What is causing the labor unrest across various industries?

The labor unrest across various industries, including UPS and Hollywood, is primarily caused by the changing nature of work due to technology. The demand for fast and convenient services has led to overwork and underpayment of workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these changes, especially in the entertainment and retail sectors, forcing companies to scramble to meet consumer expectations.

Who are the workers currently protesting?

Workers from a wide range of professions are currently protesting, including UPS delivery personnel, Hollywood actors and writers, Starbucks baristas, and airline pilots.

What specific issue is Hollywood grappling with due to the rise of streaming platforms?

The rise of streaming platforms has upended entertainment economics. The traditional system of residuals or long-term payments from reruns and subsequent screenings of films and shows doesn’t apply to streaming services, leading to a drop in wages. Content producers are also under pressure to deliver more, faster, with less manpower.

What were the key outcomes of the provisional contract agreement between UPS and the Teamsters?

The Teamsters won several concessions in the provisional contract agreement with UPS. These include pay raises, air conditioning, and an end to forced overtime on off days.

How have companies like Starbucks and Amazon responded to unionization efforts?

Unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have been aggressively resisted by the companies, leading to a stall in such movements.

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Sandra.T July 31, 2023 - 4:20 am

this is what happens when we prioritize speed over everything else. Workers are people too, not machines. They deserve better.

NeilParker July 31, 2023 - 5:50 am

why’s everyone so against unions tho? If it can help make things better, companies should be open to it. Or maybe they’re scared of actually paying fair wages huh? Just a thought…

JessieM July 31, 2023 - 6:01 am

wow didn’t realize it was so bad in Hollywood. thought actors and writers made good money.

timothy_robins July 31, 2023 - 7:09 pm

UPS driver here… Yeah, it was like Christmas for two years straight. Crazy times but glad some changes are coming. Hope others get the help they need too.

Mike_Sullivan July 31, 2023 - 10:23 pm

I’ve worked in retail for years and this is so true. The expectations are crazy these days. We’re humans not robots, you know!

linda83 August 1, 2023 - 12:57 am

Its about time we stood up for our rights. Lets support the workers! Let the revolution begin!!!1!!1!


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