Over 100 days after declaring a strike, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) remains unwavering in their commitment to securing a fair contract for its 11,000 members.
The WGA made it clear last week that after a non-starter meeting with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents major television studios, they will not end the strike until their terms are met: “Rest assured, this committee does not intend to leave anyone behind, or make merely an incremental deal to conclude this strike.”
Though the studios said they would consider raising minimum script fees, they were “not willing to engage” on other key issues, according to a WGA statement. These include mandating minimum writers’ room sizes and employment terms, fixing the broken system of residuals — the payments writers and actors receive when their program re-airs — and adequately protecting them from the threat of AI.
Since July 14, the WGA’s some 160,000 counterparts in the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) have also been on strike, marking the first time both major entertainment industry unions have shut down Hollywood since 1960.
The last WGA strike, which took place between 2007 and 2008, ended after 99 days. But unlike last time, when numbers on the picket dwindled, this time, attendance remains strong on the picket lines at studio lots, according to Y. Shireen Razack, a television writer as well as co-founder and co-chair of the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE). TTIE works to increase opportunities for television writers from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Recent polls show that the public continues to support the unions over the studios.
“Despite the heat and all that, I think we’re just as committed and motivated as we ever were,” explained Tawal Panyacosit, a WGA member and another co-founder and co-chair of TTIE. The solidarity from SAG-AFTRA has validated WGA members and reinvigorated the strike, he said.
As SAG-AFTRA member Miriam Blanco added, “There’s more power in union solidarity. Gather up all the artists, and let’s all commit to working when we have a fair contract. I think that makes it a movement.”
Like the WGA, SAG-AFTRA is united around issues arising from the explosion of streaming in the last decade. Streaming has upended the television industry, but compensation structures have not adapted apace. Before streaming, writers were employed for longer periods, with larger teams that penned longer seasons. They were paid script fees and leaned on significant amounts of residual payments they received each time an episode they’d written aired, which allowed writers to sustain themselves during dry periods.
But streaming services like Netflix and Hulu order shorter seasons and often hire writers to write entire series before production even begins in what are called mini-rooms. And their residual payments are significantly lower than those for network television, or none at all if the show never goes into production. This has opened a massive chasm in compensation for writers and actors who work for streaming shows or for network television, even though they are producing the same product.
As a result, TV writing and acting has, for many entertainment workers, become “not livable,” in Blanco’s words. Actors have taken to social media to draw attention to this issue. Actress Kimiko Glenn posted a viral TikTok showing how little in residuals she makes for her work on “Orange Is the New Black,” one of Netflix’s first mega-hits, posting one check she received for a long list of episodes, totaling some $27. That actors like Glenn and her colleagues — as detailed in a New Yorker article about the compensation issues on the show — were unable to make a living on “Orange” feels particularly notable considering the show’s progressive themes. The series brought issues of the prison-industrial complex into the mainstream and featured an extremely diverse cast that was majority women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+.
The rise of streaming has seen an explosion of diverse storytelling by creators, writers, and actors from historically underrepresented groups. In the 2020-21 television season, Nielsen found that 78% of the 1,500 most popular shows featured some presence of racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation diversity. And many of these shows have been massive hits. But many also did not adequately compensate the people behind it. According to TTIE, 47% of BIPOC writers have to take jobs outside the industry, and the majority of disabled writers rely on family support (52%) or public support like unemployment (72%) to survive.
Despite pledges from studio leaders in 2020 to support diverse programming, since 2021, an industry contraction has led to the cancellation of many series. In some cases, diverse shows have been first on the chopping block, with some pulled entirely from streaming platforms or not greenlighted at all.
As Blanco, a Filipina wheelchair user, explained, “You’re seeing all these people who haven’t been getting their stories told be able to. But it’s treated like it’s this luxury … this bonus thing, [when it] needs to be a priority.”
And while some things have improved for writers and actors from historically underrepresented groups, they still face disproportionate barriers to entry and advancement in their careers.
“There are already these astronomical barriers of entry when it comes to working in entertainment for just anybody. But for disabled artists, it is so much harder,” Blanco said.
Razack and Panyacosit said that even after clearing the first hurdle of getting a writing job, people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to repeat staff levels and not advance to upper levels as showrunners or creators. Today, 81% of showrunners are white, according to the 2022 WGAW Equity & Inclusion report. The issue of mini-rooms with shorter timelines contributes to this problem because writers in those rooms don’t get to work on set while the show itself is filmed, missing out on important professional development.
AI could have an especially negative impact on diverse stories, TTIE notes. “AI writing programs generate story based on scripts they have been fed from the many years of Hollywood’s existence. We’re talking decades of storytelling that propagated and perpetuated harmful stereotypes about historically excluded communities.”
Meanwhile, CEO Disney Bob Iger, who makes $27 million a year, has called the strike’s demands “not realistic.” Behind closed doors, the studios’ attitude toward the strike is even less circumspect, with one telling Deadline in July that “the endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”
Blanco and her fellow actors were “disgusted … that anyone would even vocalize that being the intention of the studios.” But support from organizations like the Entertainment Community Fund, SAG-AFTRA Foundation, and many more has helped keep writers and actors afloat in this tough time, helping them buy groceries, make car payments, and pay rent.
A-listers have donated millions to these funds, which Blanco acknowledged will help working writers stand a chance against the studios.
“We’ve got people in this industry that have been really successful that have recognized the luck that they’ve had,” she said.
Though resolve stands strong, as the strike rounds out its first quarter, some members face economic challenges and worry about remaining eligible for union health insurance, which requires a certain income level. This is especially salient to historically underrepresented groups, including disabled writers. “It’s a reality and one of the many risks we’ve taken to support this strike and a sustainable career moving forward,” said Panyacosit.
“We came into this industry because we love it — we love writing, or performing, or whatever it is, and I think we just want to be fairly compensated,” he said. “We want to be able to pay our rents.”
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.