Hollywood rocked by massive writers’ strike forced by studio bosses
Gary He / AP

HOLLYWOOD—TV, livestreaming, and motion picture studio bosses’ intransigence in bargaining and creation of “a gig economy inside a unionized workforce,” forced 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America, who craft scripts for television, motion pictures, streaming videos and similar forms of entertainment, to strike at 12:01 am on May 1.

“The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union work force, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing,” the WGA said in a statement. It’s the Guild’s first strike in 15 years.

Writers Guild picket lines went up in front of Hollywood studios at 1 p.m. Pacific Time. Members of Writers Guild of America-East began picketing at 2:15 pm Eastern Time in front of sites of live productions, such as Netflix’s Manhattan offices and NBC’s offices in New York City’s Rockefeller Center.

“We explained how the companies’ business practices have slashed our compensation and residuals and undermined our working conditions,” said the bargaining committee, headed by David Goodman, Chris Keyser and Ellen Stutzman.

“Our chief negotiator, as well as writers, made clear…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.

“From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in [the] comedy variety” sector, “to their stonewalling on” company demands for “free work by screenwriters and on AI (artificial intelligence) for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession. No such deal could ever be contemplated by this membership.”

The union said it was and is “intent on making a fair deal,” but “studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing. Companies’ behavior created a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance…betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”

The artificial intelligence point shows the union is trying to get ahead of future industry developments which threaten writers’ jobs. The fact sheet lists minimum numbers of writers for each type of programming, from three to often six and on upwards. But production firms and studios are shifting to artificial intelligence to create scripts—and that requires only one writer.

Live shows to be hit hard

“Live” shows, such as late-night TV talk shows, and streaming videos will be hit hard, as those productions rely on the scripts the writers turn out.

“In some cases, the impact will be clear immediately,” NBC Universal, one of the firms on the bosses’ bargaining committee, the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) reported.

“Late-night talk shows are expected to go dark this week, for example, and ‘Saturday Night Live’ could nix this weekend’s episode. In other cases, the producers of scripted drama and comedy series may be forced to cut their seasons short or delay filming altogether,” NBC Univcrsal added.

Pay is a big issue, but not the only one which led to a 98.5% strike authorization vote by WGA members in a high turnout in mid-April’s vote. The bosses claimed they offered “generous increases in compensation” to the writers, but WGA published a side-by-side comparison of the union’s proposal, of a 6% raise the first year and 5% each of the next two years versus AMPTP’s counteroffer of 4%-3%-2%.

Striking writers walk the picket line outside Paramount Studios in Los Angeles on Dec. 13, 2007. Television and movie writers on Monday, May 1, 2023, declared that they will launch an industrywide strike for the first time since 2007, as Hollywood girded for a shutdown in a dispute over fair pay in the streaming era. | Nick Ut / AP

And the writers say changing conditions since their last contract was signed, including the studios’ shift to livestreaming and virtual disappearance of residuals—payment to writers for their labor every time a show, livestream or movie is re-run—have cut their pay by 23% in the years since, adjusted for inflation.

“WGA proposals would gain writers approximately $429 million per year; AMPTP’s offer is approximately $86 million a year,” the fact sheet summarizes. It also contains a long list of WGA proposals where the notation on AMPTP’s side was “refused to make a counter.”

Cuts in guaranteed working hours are also big, created by AMPTP members’ shift to shorter-run series and streaming videos and creation of what the union calls “mini-rooms.” There, small groups of writers are hired to craft scripts for short-order series at an industry minimum wage.  Industry practice is to commission, produce and pay writers for series “pilots” and following longer minimum guaranteed runs, even if a show is cancelled.

Even before the AMPTP forced the writers to walk, the Guild drew support from the Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) and SAG-AFTRA.

“The motion picture and television industry thrives on the creativity, skill, and labor of every worker involved, and writers’ contributions are an important part of the success of the films, television shows, and other media IATSE members work on,” said union President Matthew Loeb. “We recognize and support our fellow entertainment workers” in bargaining for a contract “that addresses their issues from the AMPTP, an ensemble that includes media-mega corporations collectively worth trillions of dollars.”

SAG-AFTRA told its members in a pre-strike question-and-answer sheet that if studios or production companies ask SAG-AFTRA members to write scripts, the answer is “no.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.