Social media influencers will soon have access to labor protections as they prepare to unionize. The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) announced a new agreement this week that will allow influencers who earn money through advertising on social media — including TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitch, and other platforms — to join the union.
Gabrielle Carteris, the union’s president, told Backstage the agreement “was created in response to the unique nature of Influencer-generated branded content and offers a new way for influencers to work under a SAG-AFTRA agreement. We want to be able to support both current and future SAG-AFTRA members in this space and for them to be able to access the benefits of union coverage.”
Previously, YouTubers were the only influencers afforded union protections and benefits, including the right to earn union income, and qualify for health and pension benefits. While the agreement currently may appear to only affect influencers who already have a larger audience — for instance, TikTok stars like Charli d'Amelio, Addison Rae, and Bella Poarch, three of the biggest names on the platform who have amassed millions of followers — it also opens the door for further recognition of workers in an increasingly informal gig economy.
More and more of the labor force has turned to gig work, from freelancing in the media industry to other forms of app-based labor. In 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 55 million people in the US were gig workers, and projected that 43% of the workforce would find informal work in 2020. The growing number of workers without formal employment status has led to organizing efforts around their inclusion in existing unions or efforts to form new ones.
Likewise, the inclusion of informal workers in labor unions can only ever be a good thing for the labor movement. As actress and writer Kristin Chirico wrote on Twitter, “a lot of influencers are marginalized people who COULD REALLY BENEFIT from union protections, especially as more brands seek to employ marginalized creators to improve their images.”
That was what led Instagram influencers to form two unions in the US and the UK last year. Under The Creator Union, influencers pushed for more transparency and to root out exploitative practices in the growing industry, while aiming to center the rights of Black and LGBTQ+ influencers who were most commonly underpaid, Vogue Business reported at the time. “Often, even well-known brands don’t allow influencers to negotiate fees, don’t offer a contract, and don’t pay on time,” Nicole Ocran an influencer and co-founder of TCU said.
The growing gig economy is forcing workers to reimagine what unions should offer them, and who should be included at the bargaining table. As newsrooms across the country have been affected in recent years by shutdowns and layoffs, freelancer writers have started forming their own unions like the Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union and the National Writers Union’s Freelance Solidarity Project. Some newsrooms with unions under the Writers Guild of America (including this one) have started pushing to include freelancers in their union, as well.
Moreover, some people see influencers’ inclusion in SAG-AFTRA as an opportunity for the labor movement to renew efforts around the PRO Act, a labor rights bill that passed in the House last year. The labor rights bill would allow the National Labor Relations Board to impose fines against employers for violating workers’ rights, and increase protections for workers’ right to strike, among others.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for Congress to protect and strengthen workers’ rights,” said House Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott. “Over the past year, workers across the country have been forced to work in unsafe conditions for insufficient pay, because they lacked the ability to stand together and negotiate with their employer.”
Social media influencers and other essential gig workers may not appear to have much in common on the surface. But increasing union membership and protections for informal workers across the board can only be beneficial for labor rights as a whole. And give them a future which, perhaps, five years ago no one dreamed was possible.