Universities are devoting fewer faculty positions to tenured chairs than in the past, and hiring more adjunct professors who have little chance of promotion. Law firms employ relatively fewer partners and more attorneys who are paid less. And Hollywood hires fewer writers to participate in the entire production process, relegating more of them to piecemeal work.
This trend is part of what my colleague Noam Scheiber calls “the fracture at work,” and it’s a central issue in the Hollywood writers’ strike now 11 weeks old. As one historian explained, there is increasingly a “tiered labor force of high-ranking workers and lesser workers.” The arrangement has its roots in the making, Noam writes in a story just published:
In the early 20th century, automobiles were produced largely by hand by small teams of highly skilled “off-road” mechanics who helped assemble a variety of components and systems: ignition, axles, transmission.
By 1914, Ford Motor had repeatedly divided and subdivided these jobs, spreading over 150 men across a vast assembly line. The workers usually performed a few simple tasks over and over again.
Specialization has great advantages. Businesses can complete tasks more efficiently and economically. But workers sometimes pay the price in the form of lower wages and less responsibility, especially if they are not unionized and lack bargaining power.
The screenwriters, who are unionized, went on strike in an attempt to use their collective influence to avoid becoming Hollywood’s equivalent of adjunct professors. Until the past decade, writers not only wrote scripts, but also stayed on set during filming and participated in the process. They offered ideas on costumes and props and tweaked the script as the cast performed it.
Producer Michael Schur has likened the job to an apprenticeship. Schur was a writer for “The Office” and his experience helped him learn to create and run his own programs. He later did it with “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place.”
Today, only one or two writers stay with a show through production, while others produce scripts and are later removed from the process. “TV production is very compartmentalized now,” John Koblin, who covers the TV business for The Times, told me. “Writers write. The actors act. The directors lead.” (John went into more detail as a guest on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”)
As a result, writers’ pay has stagnated even as streaming has led to a boom in the number of TV shows. Studio executives say they need to keep costs down in response to declining revenue from cable TV and movie theaters. And those challenges are real, but executives also appear to be using the shift to streaming as an excuse to turn the economics of their industry less favorable to many employees.
The trend is a microcosm of larger developments. Nationwide, the pay of the bottom 90 percent of wage earners has lagged far behind economic growth in recent decades (as you can see in these charts from the Times). Most Americans have not received their share of the growing bounty of the economy, while a relatively small share have experienced very large income gains.
That’s not shocking. As the economist Thomas Piketty has explained, inequality tends to rise in a capitalist economy, in part because the rich have more political power and economic influence than the middle class and poor. But history also shows that rising inequality is not inevitable.
There are forces that can push in the other direction. Increased educational attainment can give more people the skills to become specialists. Higher income taxes and large fortunes can redistribute wealth. Unions can give workers bargaining power to prevent wage stagnation.
Hollywood writers, and, since last week, actors too, are now trying to make a big push against inequality.
Here you can read Noam’s story, detailing accounts from the writers of “The Mentalist,” “Billions,” and other shows.
THE LATEST NEWS
More than 86 million Americans live in dangerous heat, and El Paso has endured 33 straight days of 100 degree temperatures. See the US heat wave by the numbers.
war in ukraine
Russia has intensified its assault on Ukraine’s food exports, attacking port facilities in Odessa and warning other countries that bypassing its blockade of the Black Sea would be an act of war.
The head of MI6, Britain’s spy agency, said Vladimir Putin had “reached an agreement” with Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin during last month’s rebellion to save face.
Ukraine allows soldiers displaced by Russia’s invasion to join the fight to liberate their hometowns.
Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne is resigning after an investigation found fault with his research.
Tessier-Lavigne’s departure and the recent firing of Northwestern’s football coach have something in common: They were both fueled by tenacious student newspapers.
Wesleyan University in Connecticut is eliminating admissions preferences for family members of alumni.
other great stories
A gunman opened fire at a construction site in Auckland, New Zealand, killing two people. The suspect’s motive appeared to be related to work at the site, not the start of the Women’s World Cup in the city.
Hundreds of protesters stormed the Swedish Embassy in Iraq and set part of it on fire to protest the planned burning of the Koran in Stockholm.
A Powerball jackpot of over $1 billion has a single winning ticket, sold in California.
The New York City Subway is raising its base fare for the first time in years. A ride will cost $2.90, instead of $2.75.
Abortion rights advocates are organizing free flights to bring patients to states where the procedure is legal.
No Labels’ flirtation with a third-party presidential campaign is a flippant response to another potential Trump-Biden showdown, katherine miller writes
Here is a column of pamela paul about the dangers of Biden’s candidacy.
canine convention: Imagine fighting 488 golden retrievers over a family portrait.
Beauty and bacteria: An endurance athlete plans to swim the 315-mile Hudson River swim.
multiplying: Rabbits have invaded a Florida island.
lives lived: Kevin Mitnick was once one of the most wanted computer criminals in the US. After prison time, he became a security consultant and public speaker. He died at 59.
WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
The United States is the favorite to win its third consecutive Women’s World Cup, which began today, but other countries have closed in US domain.
New Zealand defeated Norway, 1-0, in the opening match, the country’s first Women’s World Cup victory.
Check the schedule in your time zone and sign up for The Times daily tournament newsletter.
Northwest culture: players they were hazed for years at the football team’s preseason camp, including through naked pull-ups and being forced past soaped-up teammates to get to the showers.
Cementing victory: Jonas Vingegaard was on the brink to repeat as champion of the Tour de France after opening up an almost insurmountable lead in the closing days of the premier cycling race, the BBC reports.
ARTS AND IDEAS
An intellectual hot dog: The most talked about dish in New York this year is the $29 hot dog at Mischa’s, writes restaurant critic Pete Wells. The dog is about three inches long, with a natural casing that breaks apart and is stuffed with brisket emulsified with pork fat. It comes with clever seasonings.
“Considered a public statement, the $29 hot dog is obnoxious, a flagrantly expensive gimmick for highbrows and highbrows outside of the Jeff Koons catalogue,” Wells writes. “However, if you can forget about all this and just eat it, the $29 hot dog is glorious.”
More about culture
“Oppenheimer” showcases Christopher Nolan’s virtuosity as a film director, writes Manohla Dargis. Read her review.