TikTok Creators Are Angling for a Union. Labor Experts Predict an Uphill Battle

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

​TikTok logo and union laborers
Image courtesy of Andria Moore

Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that a group of around 75 TikTok creators formed a private Discord server to discuss the potential of forming a union. Led by Forrest Valkai, a science TikToker with 1.4 million followers, the group’s main gripe included their lack of stability.

“We’re professional creators,” Valkai told Insider. “How hard would you work for a company that doesn't pay you and where you can be fired and dropped for no reason?”

TikTok creators know they’re not the company’s staff. In its terms, the company appears to classify some of its creators as independent contractors, since it pays them directly.

Content on the app is monetized through several arrangements. One of those ways is through the Creator Next program: the ground floor hub through which the rest of transaction avenues occur. To be eligible, creators must have over 1,000 viewing hours of their content over the last 30 days.

Once in the door of Creator Next, you can be paid directly from fan transactions (tips, video gifts, live gifting), brand endorsement deals (via the Creator Marketplace) or directly through the Creator Fund. Of all the monetization models available to creators on the platform, only the Creator’s Fund refers to its participants as independent contractors of TikTok on their legal Terms page. As such, the Creator Fund is perhaps the only avenue by which creators can form a union and lobby Tiktok for employment status.

To join the Creator Fund, TikTokers need to be an adult based in the U.S. with an active account; have at least 100,000 views within 30 days of applying and at least 10,000 followers. But that doesn’t guarantee you membership, and applications can receive unclear rejections.

Launched in July 2020, the fund is a $200 million reserve available to creators. TikTok said in March 2021 the fund was expanding, noting on their website they “expect this fund will grow to over $1 billion in the US in the next 3 years, and more than double that globally.”

How the Creator Fund operates – who it lets in, why and how much they will be paid (TikTok says it's between two and four cents per every 1,000 views) – is also an algorithm-shrouded mystery. TikTok wouldn't tell dot.LA how many people are in the Creator Fund currently.

Officially, TikTok says “a number of factors influence how funds are calculated,” including “video views, video engagement” as well as adherence to guidelines and terms of service. But a finer look at the verbiage on the Creator Fund Terms claims: “TikTok will pay Creator a sum…based on Creator’s total legitimate, unique video views for eligible User Content that complies with these Creator Fund Terms.”

@jegaysus It’s a dark agenda, I’m over it. I see @hankgreen1 mention the TT lack of creator support. But not about this using of creators to make free vids, from multi-million dollar companies. #tiktok101#influencertips#sweettartsfilmentry♬ 3 minutes song atonal piano - Quetzal BGM

That’s still no answer for how much is going to creators, but at least we know the criteria: views, not “engagement.”

But even if TikTok creators are being paid out directly, their status as potential independent contractors could bar them from unionizing.

“The whole concept of independent contractor status is really a hot button in labor law right now. It is a disfavored classification, under state and federal law, because there's a lot of suspicion that it's being used to hide employee status,” Thomas Lenz, a lecturer at USC’s Gould School of Law and former attorney for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), told dot.LA.

It would also be difficult to prove that every creator is negatively affected by TikTok’s payment policies in the same way, which Lenz explained, is one key way unions gain ground in changing protocols.

While public support for unions is at an all-time high since 1965 and workers in entertainment and retail are making progress towards collective bargaining, it’s going to be much harder for a social media union to take shape. In large part because unless creators are a part of the Creator Fund, they’re not technically independent contractors.

“It’s such a loose relationship, and it’s so much at the discretion of the creator [to choose to leave],” Lenz said. “They're definitely in a gray space.”

Lenz added that if the TikTok creators get to the point where they do file a petition with the NLRB, “TikTok could very well refuse to agree to an election demand hearing, and start presenting evidence on the people that it does not consider to be employees,” which could cut down a union election before it begins.

Typically, the National Labor Relations Act only protects employees, but there could be one loophole for TikTok creators to sneak through, said attorney Alykhan Sunderji, a former head of legal for Amazon.

“These organizations [could] cause enough of a ruckus and get enough people on one side that the company says, look, we know you're not formally a union, but we'll talk to you and we'll listen to you and we'll try and be cooperative and create guidelines that will follow,” Sunderji said.

He likened the issue to the Screen Actors Guild and noted that when that union formed in the early 1930s it was successful because numerous big stars eventually came on board, forcing studios to the bargaining table.

“I think that it will be very challenging, if not impossible to do that with TikTok creators, it is just too dispersed of a group,” Sunderji said of a possible union.

Knowing this, TikTok creators are looking to SAG as a possible blueprint. “What we're attempting to do is aim for union [but] see if we can find a loophole into that and try to make it more like a SAG-AFTRA, where you can move between companies and still keep your protections,” said one creator who goes by the handle JeGaysus and wished to remain anonymous for fear of being targeted..

In June, SAG agreed to represent influencers, but didn’t return dot.LA’s request for comment.

But, according to Sunderji, the decentralized nature of social media could backfire for pro-union creators, since “it is just too dispersed of a group.”

JeGaysus told dot.LA that since September 19, the private server of pro-union TikTokers has doubled its membership, from 75 people to 150. But for now, that’s the extent of the group’s progress: No demands have been brought to TikTok yet.


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Here’s Why Streaming Looks More and More Like Cable

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
Here’s Why Streaming Looks More and More Like Cable
Evan Xie

The original dream of streaming was all of the content you love, easily accessible on your TV or computer at any time, at a reasonable price. Sadly, Hollywood and Silicon Valley have come together over the last decade or so to recognize that this isn’t really economically viable. Instead, the streaming marketplace is slowly transforming into something approximating Cable Television But Online.

It’s very expensive to make the kinds of shows that generate the kind of enthusiasm and excitement from global audiences that drives the growth of streaming platforms. For every international hit like “Squid Game” or “Money Heist,” Netflix produced dozens of other shows whose titles you have definitely forgotten about.

The marketplace for new TV has become so massively competitive, and the streaming landscape so oversaturated, even relatively popular shows with passionate fanbases that generate real enthusiasm and acclaim from critics often struggle to survive. Disney+ canceled Luscasfilm’s “Willow” after just one season this week, despite being based on a hit Ron Howard film and receiving an 83% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. Amazon dropped the mystery drama “Three Pines” after one season as well this week, which starred Alfred Molina, also received positive reviews, and is based on a popular series of detective novels.

Even the new season of “The Mandalorian” is off to a sluggish start compared to its previous two Disney+ seasons, and Pedro Pascal is basically the most popular person in America right now.

Now that major players like Netflix, Disney+, and WB Discovery’s HBO Max have entered most of the big international markets, and bombarded consumers there with marketing and promotional efforts, onboarding of new subscribers inevitably has slowed. Combine that with inflation and other economic concerns, and you have a recipe for austerity and belt-tightening among the big streamers that’s virtually guaranteed to turn the smorgasbord of Peak TV into a more conservative a la carte offering. Lots of stuff you like, sure, but in smaller portions.

While Netflix once made its famed billion-dollar mega-deals with top-name creators, now it balks when writer/director Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated,” “The Holiday”) asks for $150 million to pay her cast of A-list actors. Her latest romantic comedy will likely move over to Warner Bros., which can open the film in theaters and hopefully recoup Scarlett Johansson and Michael Fassbender’s salaries rather than just spending the money and hoping it lingers longer in the public consciousness than “The Gray Man.”

CNET did the math last month and determined that it’s still cheaper to choose a few subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime over a conventional cable TV package by an average of about $30 per month (provided you don’t include the cost of internet service itself). But that means picking and choosing your favorite platforms, as once you start adding all the major offerings out there, the prices add up quickly. (And those are just the biggest services from major Hollywood studios and media companies, let alone smaller, more specialized offerings.) Any kind of cable replacement or live TV streaming platform makes the cost essentially comparable to an old-school cable TV package, around $100 a month or more.

So called FAST, or Free Ad-supported Streaming TV services, have become a popular alternative to paid streaming platforms, with Fox’s Tubi making its first-ever appearance on Nielsen’s monthly platform rankings just last month. (It’s now more popular than the first FAST service to appear on the chart, Paramount Global’s Pluto TV.) According to Nielsen, Tubi now accounts for around 1% of all TV viewing in the US, and its model of 24/7 themed channels supported by semi-frequent ad breaks couldn’t resemble cable television anymore if it tried.

Services like Tubi and Pluto stand to benefit significantly from the new streaming paradigm, and not just from fatigued consumers tired of paying for more content. Cast-off shows and films from bigger streamers like HBO Max often find their way to ad-supported platforms, where they can start bringing in revenue for their original studios and producers. The infamous HBO Max shows like “The Nevers” and “Westworld” that WBD controversially pulled from the HBO Max service can now be found on Tubi or The Roku Channel.

HBO Max’s recently-canceled reality dating series “FBoy Island” has also found a new home, but it’s not on any streaming platform. Season 3 will air on TV’s The CW, along with a new spinoff series called (wait for it) “FGirl Island.” So in at least some ways, “30 Rock” was right: technology really IS cyclical.

As TikTok Faces a Ban, Competitors Prepare to Woo Its User Base

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

As TikTok Faces a Ban, Competitors Prepare to Woo Its User Base
Evan Xie

This is the web version of dot.LA’s daily newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news on Southern California’s tech, startup and venture capital scene.

Another day, another update in the unending saga that is the potential TikTok ban.

The latest: separate from the various bills proposing a ban, the Biden administration has been in talks with TikTok since September to try and find a solution. Now, having thrown its support behind Senator MarkWarner’s bill, the White House is demanding TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, sell its stakes in the company to avoid a ban. This would be a major blow to the business, as TikTok alone is worth between $40 billion and $50 billion—a significant portion of ByteDance’s $220 billion value.

Clearly, TikTok faces an uphill battle as its CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week. But other social media companies are likely looking forward to seeing their primary competitor go—and are positioning themselves as the best replacement for migrating users.


Last year, The Washington Post reported that Meta paid a consulting firm to plant negative stories about TikTok. Now, Meta is reaping the benefits of TikTok’s downfall, with its shares rising 3% after the White House told TikTok to leave ByteDance. But this initial boost means nothing if the company can’t entice creators and viewers to Instagram and Facebook. And it doesn’t look promising in that regard.

Having waffled between pushing its short-form videos, called Reels, and de-prioritizing them in the algorithm, Instagram announced last week that it would no longer offer monetary bonuses to creators making Reels. This might be because of TikTok’s imminent ban. After all, the program was initially meant to convince TikTok creators to use Instagram—an issue that won’t be as pressing if TikTok users have no choice but to find another platform.


Alternatively, Snap is doing the opposite and luring creators with an ad revenue-sharing program. First launched in 2022, creators are now actively boasting about big earnings from the program, which provides 50% of ad revenue from videos. Snapchat is clearly still trying to win over users with new tech like its OpenAI chatbot, which it launched last month. But it's best bet to woo the TikTok crowd is through its new Sounds features, which suggest audio for different lenses and will match montage videos to a song’s rhythm. Audio clips are crucial to TikTok’s platform, so focusing on integrating songs into content will likely appeal to users looking to recreate that experience.


With its short-form ad revenue-sharing program, YouTube Shorts has already lured over TikTok creators. It's even gotten major stars like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift to promote music on Shorts. This is likely where YouTube has the best bet of taking TikTok’s audience. Since TikTok has become deeply intertwined with the music industry, Shorts might be primed to take its spot. And with its new feature that creates compiles all the videos using a specific song, Shorts is likely hoping to capture musicians looking to promote their work.


The most blatant attempt at seducing TikTok users, however, comes from Triller, which launched a portal for people to move their videos from TikTok to its platform. It’s simple, but likely the most effective tactic—and one that other short-form video platforms should try to replicate. With TikTok users worried about losing their backlog of content, this not only lets users archive but also bolsters Triller’s content offerings. The problem, of course, is that Triller isn’t nearly as well known as the other platforms also trying to capture TikTok users. Still, those who are in the know will likely find this option easier than manually re-uploading content to other sites.

It's likely that many of these platforms will see a momentary boost if the TikTok ban goes through. But all of these companies need to ensure that users coming from TikTok actually stay on their platforms. Considering that they have already been upended by one newcomer when TikTok took over, there’s good reason to believe that a new app could come in and swoop up TikTok’s user base. As of right now, it's unclear who will come out on top. But the true loser is the user who has to adhere to the everyday whims of each of these platforms.


We Asked Our Readers How They’re Using AI in a Professional Setting. Here's What They Said

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

We Asked Our Readers How They’re Using AI in a Professional Setting. Here's What They Said
Evan Xie

According to Pew Research data, 27% of Americans interact with AI on a daily basis. With the launch of Open AI’s latest language model GPT-4, we asked our readers how they use AI in a professional capacity. Here’s what they told us:

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