Hollywood Unions Have Built Unprecedented Power, Entertainment Lawyer Says: ‘Really Is a Time for Labor’

TheGrill 2023: Loeb & Loeb’s Ivy Kagan Bierman says the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are part “of a movement that’s happening worldwide”

Ivy Kagan Bierman at TheGrill 2023
Jeremy Fuster and Loeb & Loeb's entertainment labor chair Ivy Kagan Bierman at TheGrill 2023 (Credit: Randy Shropshire for TheWrap)

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Like anywhere else in Hollywood, strikes were a major topic at TheWrap’s annual business conference, TheGrill, on Wednesday. In a one-on-one discussion on the impact of those strikes, Loeb & Loeb’s entertainment labor chair Ivy Kagan Bierman said she believed that WGA and SAG-AFTRA have built unprecedented power for labor in the entertainment industry.

“There are times when labor and management is almost equal, but this really is a time for labor, and it’s because of a movement that’s happening worldwide,” Bierman said.

The veteran attorney pointed to WGA’s recently completed bargaining agreement, which came after nearly five months of picket lines from striking writers. She noted that there were multiple major gains in the contract — such as specific language on the use of artificial intelligence and guaranteed 13 weeks of scale pay for comedy-variety writers — that the studios showed no sign of agreeing to or even discussing when the strike began.

“I teach communication and negotiation, and in labor talks, you have to hear the other side. You have to address the major issues. So when I saw how the studios first came out on AI and not addressing it, I thought, ‘Oh, this is not a good way to start,’” Bierman said. “I think that was truly a trigger moment.”

Bierman also noted that the AI issue gave the WGA and SAG-AFTRA a hot button topic to control public messaging around the strike. She recalled how on the day SAG-AFTRA announced its strike, the guild’s national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland made it a specific point to highlight how AI could get to a point where it can replace background actors with digital replicas, taking away a key job that many of the actors guild’s members use to acquire and retain union membership.

Jeremy Fuster, Ivy Kagan Bierman, The Grill 2023
Photo by Randy Shropshire

“I’ve known Duncan Crabtree-Ireland for years, that was a brilliant strategic move on his part, to pick the person that’s going to be probably the most sympathetic, a background actor who doesn’t make very much money,” she said. “Now, because I also know the studio labor executives, I think that was a very frustrating moment for them, because they weren’t countering this negative publicity that was happening.”

With the WGA contract expected to be ratified by members and top studios back in talks with SAG-AFTRA, there is a lot of optimism that the end of the strikes may be near.

But Bierman believes a lot of key work will still need to be done even after the picket lines end. She pointed out that the strikes were an expression of how much distrust Hollywood’s creatives have towards the studios, and that restoring some of that trust will be needed to get the industry functioning again.

For her, the first step of that rebuilding process will be in implementing these new labor contracts.

“There are grievances, there are arbitrations, because people have different interpretations of what these contracts mean,” Bierman said. “Where companies can be more transparent with the people who work with them, they have to try to do that.”

About TheGrill: For more than a decade, TheGrill event series has led the conversation on the convergence of entertainment, media and technology, bringing together newsmakers to debate the challenges of and opportunities for making content in the digital age. TheGrill delivers a unique series of curated discussions, industry panels and networking activations that explore the ever-changing media landscape.

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For all of TheWrap’s Hollywood strike coverage, click here.


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