Stories from the Writers Guild of America Picket Line
On May Day this year, thousands of immigrant workers, unions, and progressive organizations rallied in Los Angeles. Workers hoisted flags, held placards, and marched through the streets in cities across the world. In France, hundreds of police were injured in clashes with French workers as they poured into Paris opposing pension reforms that would reduce retiree’s benefits.
Los Angeles had seen several strikes recently, after several years of calm. In the fall, 48,000 University of California students struck for six weeks, and teaching assistants won a 50% hike in pay. This spring, after a three-day strike of school workers and teachers at Los Angeles Unified School District, the lowest paid workers secured a 30% pay increase that raised their real wages after years of inflation. On Good Friday, longshore workers at the nation’s busiest port refused overtime and spent the day with their families. Container ships waited silently. Nothing moved.
Now, writers are on strike against the wealthiest corporations in the world. Amazon. Apple. NBC. CBS. Netflix. Warner Brothers. Disney. Paramount. The United States film and television industry employs 2.4 million people and accounts for over 3% of the nation’s GDP. More than that, Hollywood writers drive content creation in the industry, writing movie scripts and television shows that influence hundreds of millions all over the world. Over 11,000 prestigious screenwriters and story creators are members of the Writers Guild of America.
Even as strikes have stirred Los Angeles’ labor movement in the first few months of 2023, corporate restructuring has rocked California. Since the mid-term elections, big corporations have seemingly coordinated mass layoffs. Facebook laid off 21,000; Google, 12,000. Amazon cut 27,000 jobs. Microsoft slashed 10,000 positions. Disney has announced 7,000 job cuts. Silicon Valley Bank failed, then First Republic Bank. With layoffs, rising food and gas prices, and an end to the Los Angeles pandemic-era eviction moratorium, people are worried. Tents lining city streets are an ever-present reminder of what might happen to employees if they cross their boss the wrong way.
Talk show hosts, industry experts, and newspaper journalists pontificate on the disruptive power of artificial intelligence. Chat GPT is the latest craze, able to generate words, phrases, sentences, and text. Businesses restructure. Capital replaces labor. Men fights machines.
Amazon is the second largest corporation in America, behind Wal-Mart. Buoyed by its cloud computing business Amazon Web Services, an expansive online retail empire, package delivery, groceries, health services, and television streaming, the corporation has acquired companies, squeezed suppliers, and raked in record profits. Its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, has a net worth of over $110 billion dollars, making him one of the two richest men in America. He owns a super yacht, multiple mansions, and the Washington Post.
On May 4th, 2023, Writers Guild of America West members were on the third day of their picket line outside Amazon Studios in Culver City, CA. Talks between the movie and television studios and the Writer’s Guild of America had broken down. The strike was called at midnight on May 1st, the day other unions marched around the world.
I spoke to Matt, a middle-aged white man, walking on the picket line.
Matt is a member of the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA). He works mostly union sets in Europe, always negotiating to maintain Hollywood union standards overseas.
European sets are always fighting over work rules. Like most corporations, they try to hire people for as little as possible. There are always different companies involved, shell companies with varied financing, some of which are from here. To get Hollywood writers, one company is a signatory with the WGA. Overseas they use SAG actors, so actors always make sure they pay a union pay scale. But not DGA. They can hire DGA directors overseas nonunion. Offshoring was a big fight last contract cycle, with companies threatening to outsource overseas, but it isn’t so much anymore.
The industry has changed. Writers are making less. There are a lot of writers making minimums, and a few higher paid established writers. There are virtually no middle-income writers anymore. There are less opportunities for training and advancement. New writers can get work for their first production, but it’s harder for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. There are no residuals on streaming.
TV writers work longer for less pay. Writers used to be paid not just for a script, but work throughout the production, doing rewrites and edits. Now, you submit one script, are paid for that, and are done. But new writers want to be proud of their work, make sure the vision they have is maintained through the project. Their reputation is at stake. They often continue to work for free to edit and transform their script through the TV or movie production process.
Writers have long waits between gigs. It’s hard for most people to get to work. But I guess if you know everyone in town, you’ll be fine. There is a lot of networking and hustling, shopping scripts, schmoozing, and getting to know people.
This strike will last at least three months, he predicted. Studios have contracts with writers. They are given office space and assistants and in exchange, the studio has the first right to produce a script. But after 90 days on strike these contracts can be invalidated. At that time, the work stoppage becomes a force majeure, a force of nature, and companies can cancel contracts and fire writers. The studios will wait until they can do that to start really negotiating. In 2007 all the bargaining happened between the 90th and 100th day.
The DGA begins negotiations in 10 days. They don’t have strike solidarity language in their contract so directors can’t respect our picket line, but their contract expires soon. The Teamsters have contract language that allows them to not cross a picket line. If we show up at five am and picket a studio or tv shoot, the drivers won’t cross to unload gear. We can shut it down.
Apple and Amazon are tech firms. Apple has more money than most nation states. Amazon is a massive company. Will Apple and Amazon union bust? If they tried, they would hire non-union foreign writers, keep us out, and try to recruit people to work for them non-union. In response, everyone currently in the industry would boycott Amazon Studios. But I think Bezos cares what people think of him. He doesn’t want celebrities to hate him.
Things are happening in the labor movement, with coffee slingers and Amazon distribution workers. If we win it shows others what a union can do.
Ray, a thirty something black woman, is one of several picket captains doing crowd control and making sure cars don’t hit picketers. She has been writing on the Netflix show the Witcher, and has been on season two, three, and four. I wrote a season, then it ended, and I was off work for a year and a half until I almost ran out of money. Then I finally got called back. It’s stressful, she relayed.
Pioneered by Netflix, streaming has transformed television. Before, writers were paid residuals for network TV, guaranteed payments for every viewer who watched their show. With streaming, there are no residuals. My friend made $40,000 for an episode of Bridgerton, which is highly acclaimed and widely watched. That’s it. Nothing more. You used to make a TV show, get paid for that, and if there were reruns, be paid residuals. One person I know made $250,000 a year for a network TV show she wrote. That is how it used to be. Not anymore.
When everything was network TV, there would be 20 episodes. Writers would work 40 weeks a year, and take a month or two off, like teachers. It was steady work. Now there are shorter episodes. The studios pay people for a month. They go brainstorm in the writers’ room for a week, then get two weeks to write on their own for free, then come back. They pay people for a month to brainstorm and write a ten-episode season and only the showrunner stays on to finish it. It is no longer steady work. My friend worked on an Apple+ show. She was paid for only 18 weeks, but was on call, writing, and coming up with ideas when not on the clock. She ended up working on that show for a year. But she was only paid for 18 weeks.
Over the past decade, there has been a 25% cut in pay for writers, but a 50% increase in television production budgets. Now there are 600 shows made annually, more than ever before. Writers are making less and less. We want residuals. But Netflix and other streaming services refuse to release their viewership numbers. They get paid for subscriptions, not views, but still investors want to know what’s popular. They don’t want to say.
Now the DGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts are up. We have to all fight together to make this a living again. It can’t just be freelance gig work like everywhere else.
Mike introduced himself. He was her supervisor on the Witcher. We walked together on the Amazon Studios picket line. So, what’s the best monster you’ve created? I asked. Well, I used to live in Georgia growing up, and we would find and play with these armored scaly Armadillos. I used that as my inspiration for one scene. But the best is when you come up with a great backstory. There was a king who had sex with his sister. The child was cursed and became a monster. What about the big online retailer that gobbled up every company in sight including a movie studio, and then didn’t want to pay their workers. I joked. Slay the beast? Ha. We’ll capture it and let it go, He laughed.
Along the sidewalk, chatting among themselves and networking, writers paced with picket signs. One man worked on the Star Wars franchise. Another group of writers chatted together. Two wore bright red Cobra Kai Season Two Crew bomber jackets with a yellow cobra emblazoned on their back, with venomous fangs and a red tongue sticking out. I smiled and waved. “Strike first. Strike hard,” a woman quipped, smiling back, repeating the Cobra Kai motto from the popular show about an underdog San Fernando Valley karate instructor training high school students to instill willpower, self-discipline, and get his own life back on track. It seemed to fit for LA unions too.
I conversed with Casey, a young white woman who wrote children’s stories for Disney. She has only been in the Writers’ Guild a few years and is anxious about her profession. We don’t want to be replaced by robots, she related. With AI, there is exponential growth. Chat GPT, Amazon, and Google may not be able to write good scripts now, but who knows what the future holds. They can copy the style of the text you feed it. So, if you only feed an algorithm great literature, maybe that’s what they can create. Writers will just polish scripts written by AI. But hey, she smirked, do robots have childhood trauma? You know, they say you need some emotional issues to write good drama, she laughed nervously.
A black woman I briefly spoke with had two years in the guild, four years before she was a writer’s assistant. She spends so much time writing projects that she doesn’t get paid for and never gets off the ground. There is so much work for free. You have to hustle, write, edit and then start all over before completing a script that can sell.
I meandered down the street to one end of the picket line Two older women reclined in metal chairs in Culver City’s downtown outdoor plaza. One was Judy Blume, a famous children’s story writer who has published more than 25 books that have sold tens of millions of copies.
Amazon is going into healthcare now, she exclaimed, wrinkling her nose ever so slightly. Look what they did to bookstores. There is an Amazon bookstore in Pacific Palisades. I hate what they did to book publishing, she related.
I like the little stuffy smelling ones, I replied, the independent bookstores that now have gone the way of the dodo bird. The difference is that in a bookstore you can look around. You may be looking for one thing, but you find something else. Or your eye wanders and you find a different book with a different outlook you never knew existed. I guess that’s the same way with Amazon, I mentioned to Judy. There is an algorithm which will tell you what else you may like.
It’s not the same, she said.
The next week I headed to the picket line at Netflix. Several hundred writers picketed, stretching a block around the Netflix Sunset Bronson studios on Sunset Blvd near the 101 freeway. Signs read WGA On Strike. Every Show Starts with Us. No Deal No Dick Jokes. They Say There’s No Money, They Mean There’s No Money for Us. The Theme of This Story is Corporate Greed. Pay Writers Mi Family Are Writers. A Fair Contract Should Not be Strange Things. Honk for Fair Wages. Death to Mini Rooms. Pay Up Bitches. We’re Here We’re Queer and We Can Do This All Year. LGBT Writers not Chat GPT. (Insert Chat GPT Joke Here). I’d Rather be Writing. No More Free Words. Show Us Your Numbers. Netflix not Chill. Don’t Let the Writers Fade Out.
I spoke to white brunette who has been in the WGA since 2018.
I saw the list of offers and counteroffers, she said, and I thought, this means war. I just hope workers in other industries will start something too. This is happening all over.
I concurred. With rising food and gas prices, stagnant wages, automation, and layoffs, corporations are squeezing workers throughout the United States.
Two writers in their 30’s, a white man and woman, walked together on the picket line. They both started as minimum wage PAs, or personal assistants, fetching people lunch and things like that. They worked in an office and were lucky. Those on set often work grueling hours.
We started out with other writers, so we had hope that it was possible, one said. Next, they became writers’ assistants, and worked there for four years, as IATSE members, before joining the Writers’ Guild. One was in the middle of a show when the strike started. The other was between work. They chatted, chanted, and walked the picket line besides me.
I started talking with a Chicana writer in her late thirties. One whisp of grey fell down her back on the left side of her black curly hair. Teachers and nurses, some I know say we make so much money, so why are we striking? We are doing this for everyone. We’re all in this together. If they support us, we’ll support them. That’s what union is all about.
The guild had a big meeting right after the strike started. There were so many people there. We filled up the Shrine Auditorium. Everyone was there, the DGA, SAG. Someone from the Teamsters spoke and everyone cheered. We saw the union’s contract proposals, and for many of ours, the studios didn’t even counter. I was worried, but after seeing all those people, I felt more security. They aren’t bargaining in good faith. We were told to save up. These strikes could last 100, 200 days.
Imagine Dragons, the popular rock band, played a set. The lead singer, Dan Reynolds, stood on a metal bus bench as writers gathered holding their picket signs. At one point, workers inside the glass enclosed studio tower peered out to watch. The crowd chanted, “Come out, come out.”
With guitar accompaniment holding a microphone connected to a small speak on the ground and surrounded by the crowd of strikers, the rock star sang his hit song, Radioactive.
I raise my flags, don my clothes
It’s a revolution, I suppose
We’ll paint it red to fit right in
The crowd yelled out, cheering. After the concert, picketing resumed. Teslas and BMWs entered and exited Netflix Studio’s driveway. The writers walked slowly, blocking the way. A white man with a reddish-brown beard shouted encouragements, urging each striker to touch their sign with his at the end of the picket line. Two florescent green clad security officers directed traffic. After some time, the line of strikers would stop, so cars could get through. The crowd booed. One yelled, Scab! “When the Writers’ Guild is under attack, what do we do? Stand up! Fight back!” A picket captain chanted into a megaphone.
At five pm, picketing ended. The WGA picket captain, a white man with a black hat, t-shirt, and a bullhorn stood on a cement barrier. Why are we getting so many honks? he asked rhetorically. Because when workers see us standing up and fighting corporate greed, they know we are fighting for them. And they see us and are inspired to fight in other industries too.
Well paid, highly educated, with prestigious jobs influencing tens of millions, Hollywood writers are on the front lines against automation and corporate takeaways. But for them to win, we all must fight. It will take millions of ordinary workers struggling out of the limelight to stand up to corporate greed to restore common decency and a dignified life for working families. That might just be the summer blockbuster we’ve all been waiting for.