In early July, Tempest member Eric Maroney sat down with Gabriela, an ally close to the Writers Guild of America strike, to talk about the strike action, what is at stake, and what it will take to win. The interview took place several weeks before SAG-AFTRA, the Actors’ Guild announced their own strike. The following is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity.
Eric Maroney: Can you start by telling me a little bit about the strike? When did it begin? How long have members been out? Is there any anticipation over how it might end?
Gabriela: The strike began on May 2, 2023, so we have been out for a little over two months now. Prior to the strike, there had been a lot of discussion and preparation ahead of the action. Members were pretty clear that they might have to strike and were unwilling to take a mediocre deal or any deal that didn’t address their concerns. In the union, there had already been prepping, getting strike captains ready, but also trying to balance the trades (trade magazines). The employer group is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and they had been putting all this anti-union propaganda into the trades.
You know we have all these publications–Variety, Deadline—which are the trade papers that everyone reads, kind of the gossip column of the entertainment world. It is kind of like a mouthpiece. We put things in the trades like press releases, but the AMPTP has a direct line. So the AMPTP had been putting things out there pre-strike, things like the WGA is just striking to strike. And so, for at least about a year, we have been preparing to strike.
EM: Has this been ahead of a contract negotiation? Tell me a little bit about what has led to the strike?
Gabriela: The contract expired on May 1. The contract is three years and it’s called the minimum basic agreement. WGA is more of a guild, so people can negotiate better but the contract sets the minimum standards for writers in screen and television, including cable and streaming services. The last strike was in 2007-2008 and that was at least partially about residuals (most people think of the term royalties), but residuals are the check you get after selling what you have written, which can sustain writers through long periods of not having employment. Part of the strike in 2007-2008 was about getting any kind of residuals from streaming.
Streaming was still kind of a newish idea, and how you calculate residuals was an issue. On the networks, every time something is played, under the minimum agreement, a writer gets a check. And so you could make something out of that. Even if you write a one-hit-wonder that is played over and over again, you could at least make some basic income while you are trying to pitch and write other stories. The writers did win some residuals back in 2007-2008, but it wasn’t enough of a percentage, and it doesn’t compare to cable. That has gotten worse for a number of reasons. Streaming is now the main platform through which entertainment is consumed and most streaming writers are employed at the minimum compensation and for less hours—a result of shorter production runs.
2020 was the last time the contract came up for negotiations and we were in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdowns, and in 2020 there was already an appetite among members to tackle this disparity. There was already this feeling that whoa, there’s a lot of streaming. We’re not getting enough. Writers aren’t getting enough from residuals—like if a film feature is released direct to streaming and not to the theater, there is a lot less compensation. But it was COVID, and a lot of the other entertainment guilds were decimated by COVID, a lot of people were laid off. The writers were not, but there was this fear that there would also be massive layoffs for the writers. That didn’t happen, but what did happen is that streaming took off in a whole different way. Everyone is stuck at home. They’re all watching Netflix and Amazon. Apple TV comes out. And so the last agreement (MBA) does not cover this new industry-wide change. Writers, since 2020, have been clear that in this next contract, we are going to have to get ready; we are going to have to strike.
EM: My understanding is that, I mean this is obvious, but the streaming companies were really making money hand over fist during the pandemic. Am I right? Because all of a sudden, there is nothing to do and so people are signing up for multiple services, but that profit was not trickling down to the writers. If I am understanding you correctly, because production was kind of skeletal that also increased the profit margin, so the writers are really being squeezed—the rate of exploitation is heightened because the workforce is smaller.
Gabriela: That’s right.
EM: Wow. That’s wild. Okay, so take us to where we are now with the strike.
Gabriela: The streaming companies had already been putting out this propaganda that they were losing money, losing subscribers. Netflix posted a loss last quarter, but the union has been really good at countering this narrative with reports and press releases. WGA is divided into WGA East and WGA West. These are separate legal entities, but they bargain together. The West is much larger. There are 11,000 members, and so they are like the powerhouse. I was not personally involved in negotiations and the union agreed to closed sessions, but I do know that there were two weeks on, where they negotiated every day, then there was a two-week hiatus. This is when WGA took the strike authorization vote, which 98% of members approved, and then went back to the table with this hugely supported strike authorization and negotiated for two more weeks. Then on May 1, they released the statement that we were going on strike on May 2. And we are still out now.
EM: What is it that members hope to win out of the strike?
Gabriela: Better residuals, a better formula for residuals for streaming. Right now it’s something like a lump sum. The production companies pay out a lump sum because they’re claiming that since it’s streaming, people can watch it any number of times and that it would be impossible to track that. First of all, that’s not true. They know exactly how many times I’ve watched Bridgerton, but still, they are claiming that they cannot pay as they do for cable. So one priority of the strike is working out a formula so that people can be compensated fairly for the work they do. Another piece is related to budgeting for writers and the minimum number of writers allowable for a series.
What the studios have been doing is a show will have a successful first season, and during this first season you’ll have a showrunner and all of these staff writers, who are not famous and who are entry-level—this is where you’ll see more women writers, more writers of color. When the show is renewed for a second season, the production company cuts the writing budget. Maybe they only budget for three staff writers, so in year one you had this big room full of writers who worked together and put together a successful idea—which, of course, is the hardest part—but in the second year they are not brought back to the project. This is part of the minimum number of writers that we want in the room, and studios don’t want this at all.
EM: I think you had also mentioned something about compensation for writing that is ultimately not used.
Gabriela: Yes, that’s right. There is a whole lot of free work that goes into writing for the studios because they want you to pitch, and you are not getting paid for that work. A writer may pitch something, and the studio reps will say can you rework that and send it to us again? Suddenly the writer has done five rewrites and hasn’t been paid for any of it.
EM: Can you talk about the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology on the industry?
Gabriela: Yes. That’s another huge thing. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) settled their contract right in the middle of this strike (which didn’t help us) but they claim they got really good language around AI. If it’s true, we are likely to get that language too. The WGA’s proposal around AI was that it could be used but that it had to be used with a writer and could not replace a writer.
EM: So not a complete rejection of AI, but an acknowledgment that AI threatens to weaken the bargaining power of the writers. Can you tell me about the pickets? What have they been like?
Gabriela: I can talk about the pickets on the east coast. The west coast pickets are different. There are a lot more people. They had Imagine Dragons play at one of the rallies. Over on the east coast, we are like, “What the hell, we don’t get Imagine Dragons.” But I have to say, it’s been very exciting. The first day of the picket we had thousands of people come: members, but also actors, Stage Actors Guild (SAG) actors have been really on the line. They have a van; they have their own table, and they show up with their stuff. The actors and the writers really have a symbiotic relationship. The writers make the actors who they are. I was on a small picket in Greenpoint; there were ten of us and four of them were the leads from Severance. Pete Davidson delivered pizza. We have had a lot of solidarity across all the guilds. I think there is a real appetite for this kind of militancy. 2007-2008 was different. There was not this level of solidarity. Back then the picket line was crossed. Not so much this time.
This time is really different; this time no one crossed. In the beginning, I was at a picket with hundreds of people from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) who refused to cross the picket line. Crew and Teamsters were all on one side and at some point. We have these big pickets in front of the headquarters which thousands of people come out to. Huge rallies with speakers and music and then we have these smaller pickets in out-of-the-way places like Greenpoint, Brooklyn. We have these flying squadrons that have been going to production when they are shooting at a café in Greenpoint. We will show up and do our best to disrupt production. For the first few weeks, we were getting really great solidarity. Crew was not crossing. The one picket I was thinking of, we stayed there 24 hours to shut it down.
I remember, we were dwindling in numbers, but people would get on the phone and call their friends. People just kept showing up and we were able to keep the picket going. I remember calling over the megaphone, another one is here and all the IATSE members cheered because they wouldn’t have to cross as long as we were there. Now the production companies are telling people if they don’t cross the line, they won’t be paid. So some productions continued.
EM: I understand the official union’s position may be a little more cautious, but can you say something about individual IATSE members? In your experience, what has their attitude been toward the strike?
Gabriela: It’s a mixed bag. That first week or two, they were all with us, and a few of them argued that they should have also gone on strike. If you remember, it looked like they were going on strike a year ago, but that didn’t happen. Some IATSE members asked things like, how did you make your union go on strike? And so, there were some really great discussions about union democracy on the line. But there are also members who are frustrated and who yell at us. They don’t want to cross. In their hearts, they don’t want to, but they have to feed their families too. There is this sense of why do they pick on us; give us a day to shoot, and come back tomorrow.
EM: A general observation about the labor movement broadly is that there seems to be more of a recognition of the intersection of labor issues and oppression-based struggles. In particular, I am thinking about the WGA strike event called the Transgender Takeover. It was a day of media takeover by members who identify as queer, trans, or nonbinary. This was to highlight the intersections between their identity-based struggles and the exploitation they are experiencing at work. Are you finding that there is a cross-pollination of politics? Are people bringing other sets of politics to the line? What does that look like?
Gabriela: We have a lot of people who come who are not members. We had a mother/daughter pair who told us they had driven six hours to be on this strike line. Just solidarity—that we have got to take a stand against corporations kind of thing. Our members in general, because WGA also represents a lot of digital news media like Slate and Vice—they are not on strike—but they are very much concerned with broader politics. If you remember, the News Guild had written that letter criticizing the New York Times for their shitty coverage of trans issues, and WGA members wanted to do the same. Some of our members had signed onto that original letter because they also write for the Times, but they also asked WGA to put out a statement and I think we had over 200 folks sign onto that second letter. But I also see this political crossover in the kind of contracts members want. Most of the digital contracts have a provision around gender-affirming healthcare, coverage that complies with the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health – Eds.) standards.
EM: To shift gears a bit, what do you think it will take to win the strike?
Gabriela: Good question. I will say this, we have been predicting internally that this would be a long strike. And members had been prepped for that. No one, I hope, was going into this thinking that we were going to go out for a few days and win everything. The last strike was 100 days; all our strikes have been pretty long, mainly because for writers, the scripts have already been written, so it takes a while for the company and for production to feel it. SAG-AFTRA (the actors union), there is the belief on the line that if SAG goes out on strike, we would win because the industry can’t sustain both strikes. Production would definitely be shut down. Right now they are still doing production without writers because, as I said, the scripts are in. Abbott Elementary has already said we’re not going to write new stuff until the strike is resolved. They have closed down. Stranger Things has closed down, but House of Dragons, because they are filming in the UK, is still going. American Horror Story is still filming without writers on set, and so there are a few that we have been picketing every day. We will see how that goes. Kim Kardashian is crossing the picket line.
EM: I’m shocked (sarcasm).
Gabriela: She told us she wouldn’t cross. But she can’t cross if SAG goes out. That’s why it’s such a game-changer if they go out.
EM: Is there a likelihood that they will join the strike?
Gabriela: I want them to go out. I just don’t know; they haven’t struck in years. The Writer’s Guild is kind of known for striking every 12-15 years. I don’t know the last time SAG went out, but it was a long time ago. But there is this interesting thing happening where the members are really pushing the leadership in a whole different way. You know Fran Drescher is the president of SAG-AFTRA, she put out this message that made it seem like they weren’t going to strike. She said something like we are getting good concessions. I don’t know, but she made it look like they were about to get this great deal. Okay, but then—this is interesting—all these clusters of A-list celebrities, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, 200 of them signed an open letter to SAG that they were willing to go on strike and not to take a crappy deal. They released this openly to their union, so they are putting pressure on their leadership to strike! So theoretically, it could happen.
Their contract was supposed to expire on July 1, but there was an agreement to extend it to July 12. That’s still a tight turnaround, and anything can happen.
EM: What is it that Tempest readers can do to support the strike?
Gabriela: There is a list of all the pickets for both the East and the West on our website. You can also sign up for our on-call list, which will connect you to calls to participate in the flying squadrons. This is where we really need the support—on the smaller pickets. But this also connects back to the question about solidarity. We are only able to organize the flying pickets because we know where production is happening, and we have relationships with individual Teamsters who share their call lists, which tells you where filming is going to be the next day. We are not able to get these until 8 or 9 PM the night before, so if you sign up for our call lists you will get an email or a Signal message saying something like, if you can make it, we will be in Queens at 10 AM. So, one thing is that we need picket support. We need people to come out and help out with the flying pickets.
The other thing is the Entertainment Community Fund. There is a fund that’s being raised to support the striking workers, so people can donate. On the website, there is also a toolkit for people who want to help raise awareness about the strike too.
Some other exciting news is the Teamsters announced they were setting aside $2 million to support their members who were not crossing the line and had lost income as a result. That’s the main difference between 2007-2008 and now, is that the level of union solidarity is tremendous. There is this amazing union leader out on West Coast. Her name is Lindsay Dougherty; she is a leader of a Teamsters local out in L.A. (Local 399). She had originally made a deal that the local would not cross the pickets at all. She has been clear in saying, if the studios want a war with WGA, then they have a war with all of labor. The Teamsters are not crossing in LA, so production out there has pretty much been shut down. On the East Coast not as much, but as much as we can do. We are much smaller on the East Coast.
EM: That’s amazing. It sounds like any kind of support that people can give is helpful, whether it be encouragement through social media, showing up at the pickets, or donating to the strike fund. What it will take to win is being able to sustain members to stay over the long term.
Gabriela: Yes. If SAG-AFTRA takes a deal, it will be a lot harder. It’ll be a little bit of a blow to the members. Not impossible, but much more difficult. Still, we are prepared to keep going.
Update following the SAG-AFTRA announcement
EM: We sat down a few weeks ago to discuss the WGA strike. A lot has changed since then. There is a lot of chatter about the fiery Fran Drescher speech. Her strong statements and the announcement that SAG-AFTRA would be going out on strike as well will escalate the stakes for the production companies. Can you tell me what has changed since the SAG announcement? How does this affect the balance of forces? What are members saying about this welcome development?
Gabriela: Well first, SAG-AFTRA going on strike means that there are no more 5 AM pickets where we are trying to stop crew and teamsters from crossing the picket line. All production has stopped. Members are thrilled of course and the mood on the line is festive, re-energized, and militant. We believe it makes us stronger of course! Fun fact, last time WGA and SAG went out on strike together, Ronald Reagan was president of SAG. So maybe Fran Drescher will be our next president?
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.
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Eric W. Maroney teaches English at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.