Workers are rising up across the US, but the ‘Rust’ shooting is a reminder that bosses still reign supreme

Alec Baldwin, Rust set
Alec Baldwin and the ‘Rust’ film set. Mark Sagliocco / Getty Images for National Geographic / Jae C. Hong / AP Photo
  • Workers are rising up across the US, but they haven’t seized any real upper hand advantages. 
  • This is clear in the response to the “Rust” set shooting which led to the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
  • No one is blaming real life bosses for her preventable death — only 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 at a company where a number of my coworkers decided that we ought to form a union. I thought this seemed like a good thing to do, and I joined them. Eventually, we announced our intention and held a vote to be recognized by our employer, which we narrowly lost. Many of us left the company shortly thereafter. 

I see echoes of my experience in the ambivalent victories of today’s American workforce. For decades, workers have endured the stagnant pay and at-will employment of a gleefully exploitative corporate landscape. Their stoicism has been rewarded, in turn, by a fast-widening wealth gap between average Americans and billionaires who, with ghoulish aplomb, became 70% richer during the pandemic. 

In ever-increasing numbers, workers are making their frustrations known. High-profile unionizing efforts are underway across the country, including an historic bid by three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York. Pro-labor attitudes are the highest they’ve been in nearly half a century. An ongoing Great Resignation has seen record-breaking quits for months on end, leaving employers in a pinch to find and retain talent. 

But even in what economists are calling a “workers’ economy,” it would be naive at best to presume that the nation’s laboring masses have seized any kind of upper hand over the employers signing their paychecks. Setting aside so many tiny-violin concertos deployed by the CEO class, evidence would suggest that the American workforce has not, in fact, killed capitalism. It’s the same old setup as ever, and the boss still reigns supreme. 

No one is blaming real life bosses

Nowhere is the primacy of the boss clearer than in today’s work-critical discourse. It’s companies or “the system” that are typically held as the bogeymen in need of reforming; disdain for bosses is generally reserved for “bosses” writ large, in place of the individuals that fit the bill. We, the joint keepers of the collective imagination, have yet to develop an anti-boss reflex that presumes accountability from actual bosses. 

The recent on-set death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins provides a devastating case-in-point. Response to the incident has proved how far we remain from a world where employers are expected to answer for what happens in the workplaces they run — at least, in the court of public opinion. The case also sheds light on where workers must double down in their efforts to reclaim power. 

Hutchins, 42, was mortally wounded last month while filming “Rust,” a low-budget Western film starring — and co-executive produced by — Alec Baldwin. Baldwin fired a prop gun that was incorrectly said to have been “cold,” or unloaded, when his bullet struck both Hutchins and the film’s director, Joel Souza. Though Souza’s injury was minor, Hutchins was pronounced dead within hours.

As crew members later told the Los Angeles Times, Baldwin’s stunt double had earlier shot two rounds from a purportedly cold prop firearm mere days before Hutchins’ death. At least one colleague was sufficiently rattled by the incident that they voiced their concern to a production manager in a text message. Nonetheless, the production company released a statement following Hutchins’ shooting that denied prior knowledge of “any official complaints” over weapons safety on set. 

But there were other complaints, too. Six crew members had walked off the set on the day of the shooting; they complained that the production company reneged on promises to pay for hotel accommodations nearby, relegating workers to 50-mile commutes on top of 12-hour workdays. In short order, non-union camera technicians were brought on to replace the unionized workers that departed in protest. Hutchins is said to have wept over the friendships she was losing by, one presumes, staying on set instead of joining the others in solidarity. She had a job to do, after all. 

Jobs in entertainment are precarious

Reading about Hutchins’ death brought me back to my ill-fated union vote, and the numbing taste of defeat it imparted. Heartbreak in the absence of better immediate options evokes something like pragmatism. I imagine that Hutchins felt similarly, in her final day on earth. 

You could say my over-identification with Hutchins’ story is the product of circumstantial familiarity. Most creative workers, myself included, recognize the trepidation that’s sowed in jobs like those of the entertainment industry, where any person’s bankability is contingent on the trends of the moment. Technicians must hone their respective crafts against relentless reminders of their own expendability. It’s a landscape, in other words, that can seem inhospitable to an organized workforce — a distillation of the broader winner-takes-all ethos of the working world. 

But regardless of any industry’s particular challenges, its workers share a common foe. Not “The Boss,” but the flesh-and-blood boss. 

It’s telling that, while Baldwin has received some flack for his role in Hutchins’ death, he has been spared the brunt of public scrutiny. While industry veterans have indicated that Baldwin bears at least some responsibility for the working conditions on his film, finger-pointing has largely been reserved for the 24-year-old rookie armorist in charge of furnishing the movie’s weapons. For his part, Baldwin has offered paparazzi soundbites that paint Hutchins’ death as a freak accident, a “one-in-a-trillion episode” of misfortune and not the worst-case byproduct of a string of negligent decisions made in the interest of bolstering the production’s bottom line. 

“We were a very, very well-oiled crew shooting a film together and then this horrible event happened,” said the actor, suggesting the tragedy was an event he passively experienced rather than one he should have helped to prevent. 

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned in all this, it’s one of framing. Bosses are not “job creators” for workers; workers are wealth creators for bosses. Current labor movements will only win meaningful gains when individual bosses are recognized as the chief agents of their employees’ strife. The pursuit of accountability needs specific targets, faces, and names. As Halyna Hutchins reminds us, the stakes are life and death.