- Workers are rising up across America, but they haven’t seized any real advantage.
- This is clear from the response to the filming of “Rust” that resulted in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
- No one blames real life bosses for their preventable death, just the concept of “The Boss”.
- Kelli María Korducki is a journalist, author, and contributing opinion writer for Insider.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
I once worked in a company where several of my co-workers decided that we should form a union. I thought this seemed like a good thing to do and joined them. Finally, we announced our intention and held a vote to be recognized by our employer, which we narrowly missed. Many of us left the company shortly after.
I see echoes of my experience in the ambivalent victories of the American workforce today. For decades, workers have endured stagnant wages and employment at will of a gleefully exploitative business landscape. His stoicism has been rewarded, in turn, by a widening wealth gap between average Americans and billionaires who, with ghoulish poise, became 70% richer during the pandemic.
In increasing numbers, workers are making their frustrations known. High-profile organizing efforts are underway across the country, including a landmark offering from three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York. Attitudes in favor of work are the highest in almost half a century. An ongoing Grand Resignation has seen record resignations for months, leaving employers hard-pressed to find and retain talent.
But even in what economists call a “workers’ economy,” it would be naive at best to assume that the nation’s working masses have taken over the employers who sign their paychecks. Setting aside so many small violin concertos played out by the CEO class, the evidence would suggest that the American workforce has, in fact, not killed capitalism. It’s the same old setup, and the boss still reigns supreme.
Nobody blames the bosses in real life
Nowhere is the primacy of the boss clearer than in the critical discourse of today’s job. It is the companies or “the system” that are normally considered the bogeymen in need of reform; Disdain for bosses is generally reserved for “bosses” in general, rather than the individuals who fit the bill. We, the joint guardians of the collective imagination, have yet to develop an anti-boss reflex that presumes the responsibility of real bosses.
The recent on-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins provides a devastating case. The response to the incident has shown how far we are from a world where employers are expected to answer for what happens in the workplaces they manage, at least in the court of public opinion. The case also sheds light on where workers must redouble their efforts to regain power.
Hutchins, 42, was fatally injured last month while filming “Rust,” a low-budget Western movie starring and co-produced by Alec Baldwin. Baldwin fired a prop pistol that was incorrectly said to be “cold” or unloaded, when its bullet struck both Hutchins and the film’s director, Joel Souza. Although Souza’s injury was minor, Hutchins was pronounced dead within hours.
As crew members later told the Los Angeles Times, Baldwin’s stuntman had previously fired two rounds from a supposedly cold firearm just days before Hutchins’ death. At least one colleague was sufficiently disturbed by the incident that he expressed concern to a production manager in a text message. However, the production company issued a statement after the Hutchins shooting that denied having prior knowledge of “any official complaints” about the safety of the weapons on set.
But there were other complaints as well. Six members of the crew had left the set on the day of the shooting; They complained that the production company failed to deliver on its promises to pay for accommodation at nearby hotels, relegating workers to 50-mile commuting in addition to 12-hour workdays. Before long, non-union camera technicians were hired to replace unionized workers who left in protest. Hutchins is said to have cried over the friendships he was losing, presumably staying on set rather than joining others in solidarity. After all, he had a job to do.
Entertainment jobs are precarious
Reading about Hutchins’ death brought me back to my unfortunate union vote, and the numbing taste of defeat it imparted. Anguish in the absence of immediate better options evokes something akin to pragmatism. I imagine Hutchins felt similarly, on his last day on earth.
You could say that my overidentification with the Hutchins story is the product of a circumstantial familiarity. Most creative workers, myself included, recognize the unease that is sown in jobs like those in the entertainment industry, where anyone’s bankability depends on current trends. Technicians must hone their respective crafts against relentless reminders of their own expendability. In other words, it is a landscape that can seem inhospitable to an organized workforce, a distillation of the larger spirit of the world of work in which the winner takes all.
But regardless of the particular challenges of any industry, its workers share a common enemy. Not “The Boss”, but the boss of flesh and blood.
Tellingly, while Baldwin has come under fire for his role in Hutchins’ death, he has spared the brunt of public scrutiny. While industry veterans have indicated that Baldwin bears at least some responsibility for the working conditions in his film, finger pointing has largely been reserved for the 24-year-old rookie point guard in charge of providing the weapons of the company. film. For his part, Baldwin has offered up paparazzi snippets that paint Hutchins’ death as a freak accident, a “one-in-a-billion episode” of misfortunes and not the worst by-product of a series of negligent decisions made in the interest of reinforcing the final result of production.
“We were a very, very well oiled crew filming a movie together and then this horrible event happened,” the actor said, suggesting that the tragedy was an event that he passively experienced rather than one that he should have helped prevent.
If there is a lesson to be learned from all this, it is that of framing. Bosses are not “job creators” for workers; workers are creators of wealth for bosses. Today’s labor movements will only make significant gains when individual bosses are recognized as the main agents of their employees’ struggle. The pursuit of responsibility requires specific names, faces, and goals. As Halyna Hutchins reminds us, what is at stake is life or death.