United States: Screenwriters strike for a living wage and job security

May 7, 2023
writers strike
@Scottcantype, @Alex_Kurtzman and @DavidAGoodman on the picket line at Sony on May 5. Photo: @WGA-West/Twitter

Film and TV writers struck on May 1 in Hollywood and New York to demand a living wage and job security.

Picket lines were set up outside major studios and shut down late night TV shows, forcing the industry to run repeats.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) says its members are struggling to make a living, as pay rates have fallen and writers have less job security. Meanwhile, the streaming era has led to an explosion in TV and film production and profits.

First strike in 15 years

The strike is the first work stoppage by screenwriters in 15 years.

11,500 screenwriters are up against companies such as Universal, Paramount and Disney, as well as tech giants, such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

Michael Jamin, a television writer who has worked on King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head, Maron and Just Shoot Me wrote in an Op Ed for the Guardian on May 3: “Once we watched our favorite TV shows by satellite dish; now we watch them over the internet. It doesn’t really change the work, however.

“Studio profits have increased by 39% over the past 10 years – yet the average writer’s salary has gone down by 4%.”

The last strike, in 2007‒08, lasted 100 days and cost the California economy an estimated US$2.1 billion as production shut down and striking writers, actors and producers cut back on spending.

The WGA issued a statement on May 1, as the strike began, saying that over the course of negotiations, its representatives had pointed out how the studios’ business practices have slashed pay and conditions.

“Our chief negotiator, as well as writers on the committee, made clear to the studios’ labor representatives that we are determined to achieve a new contract with fair pay that reflects the value of our contribution to company success and includes protections to ensure that writing survives as a sustainable profession.

“We advocated on behalf of members across all sectors: features, episodic television, and comedy-variety and other non-prime-time programs, by giving them facts, concrete examples, and reasonable solutions.

“Guild members demonstrated collective resolve and support of the agenda with a 97.85% strike authorization.

“We must now exert the maximum leverage possible to get a fair contract by withholding our labor.”

An ‘existential threat’

The WGA said the companies’ behavior had “created a gig economy” that aimed to turn writing into an “entirely freelance” profession.

WGA West president, Meredith Stiehm, said writers were facing “an existential threat”, where “core proposals were literally ignored” by the studios.

“[W]e made it very clear to them that 98% of our membership is demanding that we fight for something different, not just the usual negotiation that we’ve been having … and it just fell on deaf ears.”

WGA members began picketing on May 2. In California, writers chanted “Fist up, pens down! LA is a union town!” as 150 unionists marched outside Amazon Studios in Culver City.

Jonterri Gadson, who was leading the chant, told the Guardian she had moved to Los Angeles in 2019 to become a comedy writer and just wanted her dream job “to pay me a livable wage”.

Erika L Johnson, who was a Hollywood assistant during the lengthy writers’ strike in 2007, told the Guardian she hoped this strike would be shorter, “but we are prepared to do what we need to do”.

Johnson said writers are losing money and job stability through “the proliferation of ‘mini rooms’, smaller writers’ rooms, devoted to working on scripts before shows are being produced, or even greenlit…”

Gadson said writing can be lonely work, so she appreciated the energy on the picket line. “It feels good to know that we are all fighting together, that we won’t be alone in this.”

Greg Iwinski, a New York writer for Stephen Colbert and Jon Oliver, told the Guardian the strike was necessary, because the streaming services had tried to divorce writers from what they knew best — how to connect to an audience.

“There’s a lot of built-up wisdom in television and in Hollywood, and it’s been efficient and profitable for years,” he said. “The streamers came in and tried to stress-test how little labor it takes to make entertainment and to separate artists from their own success and employment.”

Brittani Nichols, a picket line captain for WGA-West told Democracy Now! on May 2: “We are demanding that this industry be one that can sustain a career … but right now the actions of the studios … seem like they only care about Wall Street. They’re chasing a rabbit they’re never going to catch, and in that pursuit, they’re running over the workers of this industry.”

According to the WGA, half of all TV series writers now work at minimum salary levels, compared with one-third in 2013‒14. Median pay at the higher writer/producer level has fallen 4% over the past decade.

On the Late Show on May 1, host Stephen Colbert — a WGA member — said: “This nation owes so much to unions. Unions are the reason we have weekends, and by extension why we have TGI Fridays.”

Artificial intelligence

Media companies are under pressure from shareholders and investors to make their streaming services even more profitable, after they invested billions of dollars in programming to attract subscribers.

One way the studios could maximise profit is by exploring the use of artificial intelligence (AI), which could be used to generate scripts from writers’ previous work, or to draft new scripts.

The WGA wants to prevent studios from using AI in this way, and to protect its members from being expected to rewrite draft scripts created by AI.

The union says use of AI raises several questions: “How will writers be compensated? Will they receive residuals when AI modifies scripts? Many writers call AI writing plagiarism. The studios so far have refused to seriously discuss the issue as relevant to contract negotiations.”

The writers’ strike has the support of other entertainment industry unions, including the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA and the Directors Guild of America, which issued statements of support, reported the Guardian. The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain advised its members not to work on projects under the jurisdiction of the WGA for the duration of the strike.

Nichols said: “Writers are the backbone of this industry. Nothing gets made without us. And I think that the studios will be in for quite a rude surprise when they realize that though they do not value us or our contributions, they do not have a product without us … There is no industry without writers.”

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