The Hollywood Writers Strike Proved That Collective Action Works
1:23 PM EDT on September 27, 2023
There is one lesson to be taken from the historic Writers Guild of America strike, which ended this week after 148 days. There will be a lot of attempts to reframe the result and the meaning of the strike going forward, by the studios, their captive trade press, and your various C-suite types. But, here at the end, the thing to understand is this: collective action works. Because by going on strike—and holding onto solidarity with both hands—the approximately 11,500 striking writers got much of what they asked for. Including many things that executives promised they wouldn’t.
Hollywood—and Hollywood writers, in particular—are often stereotyped as pinko commies with their heads in the clouds and no real understanding of the realities of the business of making entertainment. This idea plays on some history, the tendency of writers themselves to be self-deprecating, and the perceived glamor of Hollywood. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the studios) certainly tried to use this perception a bunch of times over the last five months, from Disney head Bob Iger claiming the demands of the unions were “not realistic” to the anonymous claim that “nobody” wanted a central WGA demand.
It did not work. In fact, nothing about this strike seemed to go the way the CEOs thought it would. They thought SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents actors, wouldn’t join the writers. They were wrong. They thought writers would scab. They were wrong. They thought the general public wouldn’t support the writers. They were wrong. They thought they could starve the writers out. Once again, they were wrong. Hours before the actual specifics of the deal were made public, the AMPTP spin began. As has been the case throughout the strike, The Hollywood Reporter suspiciously painted the WGA as stubborn and the AMPTP as the adults in the room, particularly Iger, who was described more recently by the publication as an “elder statesman.” Perhaps that is how his fellow CEOs view him, but any goodwill Iger had with the people who make his company’s art was burned long ago by a number of bad decisions, including a now-infamous meeting in which the CEOs lectured the WGA on how the August offer was the best one they were going to get (it wasn’t).
In fact, the AMPTP went public with that August offer, hoping it would make the rank-and-file union members feel that their negotiators were needlessly keeping them out of work. Say it with me: They were wrong.
To understand what the writers got and how they got it, there are three important documents to compare: 1) the state of the negotiations as of May 1, when the previous contract expired, 2) the AMPTP’s August press release touting their offer, and 3) the final deal. The WGA has also helpfully compared their original offer to the final deal.
In raw numbers, the WGA got more than half of the money it asked for. The AMPTP ended up agreeing to terms that will cost it three times as much as its initial offer would have. But the numbers aren’t the most important part of that spreadsheet; the biggest wins can be found in every concession that the AMPTP originally refused to negotiate.
One gain was minimum staff sizes for writers' rooms. The fact that every now and then a successful limited-run series could be written mostly by one person was used as an excuse to slash writing budgets for all sorts of productions, regardless of genre or size. Having minimum staff sizes saves the writers' room, a necessity for working out a whole season’s worth of TV and maintaining a minimum number of staff jobs available to writers.
Another key win was cracking down on free work. As with all sorts of careers, the old contract took advantage of people’s desire to have their name on quality work or get their foot in the proverbial door, and did not guarantee pay for rewriting a script. Now, if a studio isn’t paying more than twice the guild minimum for a script, they have to pay the writer the guild amount to do a rewrite rather than count on free rewrite work. The new contract also accelerates the pay for “flat fees”—writers will get half of the money for weekly rates up front. That gives writers money to live on while they write, so they don’t have to already have money to be working writers.
Before, if you were a TV writer, staff writers were paid weekly and, if they were the credited writer on a script, they also got an added script fee for that episode. Unless they were the lowest-ranked writer in the room, then they did not get a script fee. This incentivized studios to pressure showrunners into packing their rooms with less-experienced writers to avoid paying out script fees. Now every writer on a script will receive a script fee on top of their weekly pay.
The wins went beyond just getting more cash. What’s called “comedy/variety” was previously covered by guild rules for traditional TV but not streaming. It is now covered by this contract, ensuring those writers the same protections they would have had if their show was on old-fashioned TV. The original offer from the AMPTP was to pay those writers by the day. The final contract has a 13-week minimum. As one WGA board member noted, this helped save an entire genre of writing.
There are two more parts to this deal that I believe are going to be looked back on as revolutionary. The first one is about artificial intelligence, a phrase that might have had some utility at one point but is rapidly becoming as formless as “crypto.” Generative AI—that is, the kind of AI where you say, “Make me John Oliver marrying a cabbage” and it doesn’t really do that—is an extremely contentious issue right now. Not because it’s good. It’s not. But because just like crypto and everything else that has slithered its way out of Silicon Valley and given us all brain worms, it’s a really good excuse for not paying people. The WGA agreement prevents companies worth billions of dollars from handing a writer a piece of AI-gibberish and then only paying them to “rewrite” it. It recognizes what we all know: No matter how good a machine is, it doesn’t go around living an actual life. It can recognize patterns, but it can’t actually create. The agreement codifies that work generated by AI cannot replace any work that would have been done by a union member. It also lets writers decide if they want to use AI-generated material, which preserves it as a tool for humans to use rather than a replacement for human beings. This is what the writers came to the table asking for, and they got it.
While the AI clauses are the first of their kind, a separate aspect of the deal might be even more revolutionary: The WGA is going to get to see Netflix’s viewership numbers.
While the WGA will be held to some form of nondisclosure agreement, the days of not knowing if a show is an actual success or not (because streamers never said how many people watched it), of not being paid residuals for streaming (there’s now a “success bonus” for streaming shows), and of simply having to accept whatever a streamer tells us are over. For every show, the WGA will know how many hours it has been streamed in the U.S. and Canada and in overseas markets. They will be able to aggregate and share that data. And the WGA can ask for an independent audit of the data provided.
It seems like a tiny step forward, but being evasive about numbers is Silicon Valley’s favorite thing to do. Letting anyone see this data was seen as a deal-breaker. Knowing even a little bit about the trends in streaming is a marked improvement over taking Netflix’s word for it.
A step towards a transparency standard is great given where the writers started and the frustrations they had with the whims and flights of fancy that seemed to govern streaming.
The union won this one. They wanted to secure a future not only for writers but for the quality entertainment that viewers want, too. Without protections put in place, streaming would have, in about a generation, run out of trained TV and movie writers and put on pause any movement on breaking the toxic parts of the industry. People would be in and out before any roots could take because making a living as a full-time writer would have become impossible. By ensuring that writers starting their careers can make a living and learn the skills to move up, the union ensures its own longevity. It also ensures that, instead of reinventing the wheel with every new season, there’s continuity and stability. David Zaslav can rename the app all he wants—it won’t stop the writers from doing their jobs and doing them well.
For actors, who are still on strike, this deal should provide inspiration. Not only for what to ask for, but for how important solidarity and commitment remain, no matter how many anonymous quotes the studios float in the trades. Importantly, solidarity includes writers supporting the actors’ picket lines, just as the actors did theirs. Plus, the addition of the 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA to the pickets helped energize the lines, and having two of the guilds on strike might have gotten the AMPTP back to the table faster. They too can win this.
As for the Directors Guild of America, which accepted a deal from the AMPTP that with hindsight probably looks really bad, this should be a wake-up call. No level of labor is exempt from being fucked with by CEOs. The only way to fight back is together.
The retort of management always will be that no one is irreplaceable. Perhaps. But the power of a union acting in solidarity is its ability to respond with, You can’t replace all of us. Or, as the Teamsters memorably put it, “Labor is in its fuck around and find out era.”
Katharine Trendacosta writes about tech policy, the entertainment industry, pop culture, and where those things intersect. In her day job, she's the Associate Director of Policy and Activism for the digital civil liberties nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Her writing here reflects her views alone and not those of EFF.) In her spare time, she writes things like this.