Are performers a labor force?

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Part of the reason the election went the way it did was because of the disenfranchised working class. For the past 15 years, unionized labor jobs here in the United States have been competing with exploited laborers around the world who work for slave wages and create cheap products. This created a vicious downward cycle: American workers can only afford cheap products made by exploited workers because Americans themselves are working for smaller and smaller wages.

How does this affect me as an artist? Well, it might not as an Artist. But it does as a working performer. When I think of an Artist, I think of someone working independently of “the system.” For purposes of this article, I am speaking of the working class performer/actor.

Working actors bring their artistry to their work, just like a mason, or brick layer or construction worker. We are all working within the parameters of the job and bringing our skillset to that job. Bottom line, 98% of performers are workers first, Artists second, and we are getting the squeeze like everybody else.

Performers should be working like crazy right now. We don’t live in a world where the majority of people read. The attention span of the masses is more suited to video content and there is more media than ever. So why aren’t there more working actors?

Because the working actor is being exploited. I say again – THE WORKING ACTOR IS BEING EXPLOITED. They (management, production, studios, streaming platforms, etc) are distracting us with things that don’t matter – like “possible exposure” – distracting us so we won’t stand up for the things that do matter– LIVING WAGES.  Add insult to injury when they try to appeal to our love of the craft on a professional level as a means to undercut our pay. When they do that, they reduce the professional working performer to hobby actors. “Experience the chance to work with an amazing director” – that is an opportunity that should be achieved on merit and paid accordingly. It doesn’t mean we should be talented and experienced enough to work with that professional for free or slave wages. I can’t pay rent on an experience.

People everywhere are desperate for work. This American Life profiled a guy in the south who is 45 years old, works part time at Hallmark for $12K a year and lives at home with his folks. He’s not dumb, he’s not unwilling to work, he didn’t make terrible decisions in his life and end up here. He is like many other working class laborers out of opportunities. The worst part, he isn’t an isolated case. These slave wages are happening everywhere. I’ve talked before about the need to get away from the actor poverty consciousness; the attitude that by choosing the life of an artist it somehow means I don’t deserve fair pay. Fuck that noise. Productions, studios and streaming platforms are performer’s corporate America and they are taking advantage of us.

When production companies do not pay performers accurately and hold onto our wages (overtime, meal penalties, travel, etc.) they make money on the interest it collects by keeping that capital on hand. Corporations like GE does this kind of profiting from market money play all the time. Performers who are lucky enough to work, and then get stiffed as little as 3% of their base pay, save the studios millions of dollars, while simultaneously effect income requirements for health and pension credits. As little as $100 can mean the difference between health coverage or shit out of luck.

The tax incentive programs undercut us too. Those programs have created a system where performers at the beginning of their careers are being advised to travel at their own expense to build their resume in smaller markets because they can’t get an audition in LA or NYC. When performers travel at their own expense to work as a local hire in incentivized states, producers save tons of money in travel expenses, lodging, per diem PLUS they get further tax rebates because you are a “local hire.” We are like migrant workers without seasons. It’s a free for all, with the working class breaking even just to get an IMDB credit.

My gut tells me bargaining was easier back in the network TV days because Nielsen ratings and ad sales made the profit margin fairly obvious and we could negotiate fair pay as a result. But with streaming platforms where viewership (subscribers) numbers are proprietary, they can continue to claim they don’t know how to make money in this brand new area, despite the fact that there are a couple of streaming platforms out there producing more original content than HBO, and they don’t bargain with SAG-AFTRA, which is key for the professional journeyman performer.

Noam Chomksy said that unions are democratizing force. Whether you love SAG-AFTRA or are beyond frustrated with the red tape, the fact is in an era of exploding media content we are being offered less and less. $100/day buy out in perpetuity gig is ridiculous. It reduces our vocation to a fun pastime. Speaking for myself, and probably many of you too, I did not pay for and earn undergraduate degree in addition to spending tens of thousands of dollars in classes, panels, workshops, my own productions and 20 years of sweat equity at the school of hard knocks to have my career reduced to recreation for someone else to capitalize on.

What makes me furious is that we used to be able to aim for celebrity and land on a career. A healthy career, where you could buy a home, raise a family, have health insurance and a pension – the middle class, the working class. The working actor.

This is not a dying industry. Again, there is more content being produced than ever before! Being paid fairly is dying. We are skilled labor. Some more skilled than others, but show me an industry where that truth is obsolete. The working actor, the professional performer is part of the American labor force and we are being exploited from within. Do not settle for slave wages. Do not let others capitalize on your passion. Demand fair pay…do we even know what is anymore.

Katie Wallack

About Katie Wallack

Born and raised in Alaska, Katie graduated from Trinity College with a Theater and Dance degree before moving to NYC. She settled in LA 5 years ago. Some of her recent credits include the a supporting role opposite Nicolas Cage in the thriller ‘Frozen Ground,’ the lead in indie feature ‘You or a Loved One’ and starred opposite Danny Trejo in the comedy pilot ‘What Would Trejo Do?’ She also directed, co-wrote and starred in her first short ‘Type Cast’ currently running on Funny Or Die. In addition to her theatrical work, she has been seen in numerous national commercial campaigns including Dish Network’s spokesperson, Chase and Chevrolet. A compilation of her work is available at www.katiewallack.com. “I am excited to be a monthly contributor to Ms. In The Biz. The opportunity to add my voice to the chorus of women in entertainment is an honor.”

  • Loren Kling

    Thank you for posting this.

    Sadly, this “gig economy” has left us to fend for ourselves and fight for jobs against anybody else who has a video camera or computer microphone. If we aren’t willing to accept a below-scale fee for our talents there are many untrained people who don’t know better and are willing and ready to accept $100 in perpetuity for their “talents”.