Writers and Actors Can Strike, But Not Their Assistants: On Paying ‘Real Money’ for Unskilled Labor

Curator's Note

In the first episode of 30 Rock’s (2006–2013) fourth season, NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) accidentally sees a bonus check of his corporate boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who had recently told him that, due to the recession, the pages’ overtime would be cut and their bonuses canceled. Calling the disparity “un-American,” Kenneth confronts Jack, who responds, “It’s extremely American. My talents are more valuable than yours, so I’m paid accordingly.” The pages strike, raising questions about the value of their supposedly talentless work.

Strikes create gaps of specialized labor that demonstrate the irreplaceability of the workers—in the contemporary moment, of writers and actors. With robust conversations happening around pay scale and structures, the time might seem ideal for other precarious workers to join the strikes, but these dynamics would change dramatically if the strikers’ labor were thought to be unskilled and therefore easily replaceable, as is the case for low-wage workers such as interns,[1] production assistants, executive assistants,[2] runners,[3] mailroom staff,[4] and pages—a real job at NBCUniversal since 1933. The desirability of these jobs also leads to large, competitive applicant pools. In other words, low-wage media workers often believe they need their jobs more than their jobs need them. Striking is unthinkable for this group.

Unless, of course, you leverage those dynamics, as 30 Rock does with ambivalent results. Although Jack threatens to shut down the Page Program altogether, Kenneth calls his bluff, noting that, “if there were no pages, you’d have to pay somebody real money to do our jobs. And give them health insurance.” It’s a biting remark but ultimately toothless. The joke is on the pages, not the company; desperate for these jobs, the pages in 30 Rock forgo their own value as humans deserving of basic needs like healthcare. The gap they create by striking is not based on their labor but on their standards: they’re willing to work for the least money and fewest rights, and their knowledge of their own status as the absolute bottom option paradoxically gives them a semblance of power.

Real-life workers, however, cannot afford this race to the bottom yet lack the respect they need for an effective strike. Despite doing the support work that allows creatives to do the labor they are currently withholding, low-wage laborers are excluded from conversations around scale, residuals, and ownership. Thus, decisions about pay structures in the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes remain important but potentially unhelpful to this group that, with no “talent” but some basic human standards, ultimately has nothing to bring to the bargaining table.


[1] For a recent study, see Shien Chue and Roger Säljö, “Internship Learning as Transactional Sociomaterial Experiences in Media Industry: What Do Undergraduate Interns Tell Us?,” Hungarian Educational Research Journal 12, no. 4 (May 4, 2022): 384–400, https://doi.org/10.1556/063.2021.00100; For a collection of articles focused on internships in the creative industries, see Greig de Peuter, Nicole S. Cohen, and Enda Brophy, eds., “Interrogating Internships: Unpaid Work, Creative Industries, and Higher Education,” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 13, no. 2 (September 28, 2015), https://doi.org/10.31269/triplec.v13i2.719.

[2] Kiah E. Bennett, “Overworked and Underpaid: Hollywood Gatekeeping in Assistant Labor and Discourse” (Ph.D., Fort Collins, Colorado, Colorado State University, 2022), http://www.proquest.com/docview/2706252205/abstract/33F708A7DAC2407EPQ/1.

[3] Daniel Ashton, “Making Media Workers: Contesting Film and Television Industry Career Pathways,” Television & New Media 16, no. 3 (March 1, 2015): 275–94, https://doi.org/10.1177/1527476414532956.

[4] David Rensin, The Mailroom: Hollywood History from the Bottom Up (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003).

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