Editor’s note: Part 1 of two-part series about the writers strike crossing the 50-day mark.
The Writers Guild of America has been on strike for 50 days now. For the past eight weeks, writers have taken to picket lines across the country in their fight for a fair contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
WGA Strike Photos: Stars, Writers, Showrunners & Their Supporters On The Picket Line
In the days after the strike commenced, writers were adamant they were in it for the long haul. Although the crowds have ebbed and flowed in the weeks since, leadership insists that the resolve has remained strong.
“It’s scary to walk away from the job. It’s painful to have to inflict some of the damage on those with whom we work and the city we work in,” WGA Negotiating Committee co-chair Chris Keyser told Deadline. “The dedication, the fervency, the insistence on the part of every writer that this is a fight that they will stick with until we win it is, I would say, even stronger than it was when we began.”
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Keyser added that the 50-day mark has highlighted a “callousness” on the part of the AMPTP for not returning to the negotiating table. After talks with the WGA failed, the studios struck a tentative deal with the DGA. Now, SAG-AFTRA is in the midst of its own negotiations with the AMPTP. The actors guild has already issued a strike authorization should those talks go sideways.
“All it would take for them to say, ‘We are ready to have a conversation about reasonable demands to fix what’s broken,’ and they’ve refused to do it,” Keyser said of the AMPTP. “They hide behind an excuse so they can only negotiate with one guild at a time, but that’s nonsense. Disney can run cruise ships and theme parks and movies and TV shows all of the time. They can certainly talk to two guilds at the same time. They do it on purpose.”
Earlier this month, the WGA took aim at the AMPTP for its “divide and conquer” strategy, accusing the studios of attempting to strike a deal with one union in order to pressure the others to follow suit. During the last writers’ strike back in 2007-08, the DGA made a deal with the AMPTP on Day 73, and the WGA agreed to similar terms a few weeks later. This time, WGA leadership remains adamant that won’t happen again.
“There’s a reason why we’re firmer now than we were before. There’s a reason why every guild and union in Hollywood has stood by us,” Keyser continued. “Because people are sick and tired of being treated as if they mean nothing. And so our fight for dignity reflects everyone’s desire to be able to fight in the same way.”
As for the studios, “they will come back to the table in time, because the only thing that the 50 days has done has allowed us to inflict more pain than I think we even expected,” he added.
Union Solidarity On Picket Lines
The WGA has leveraged support from other Hollywood unions, including IATSE and the Teamsters, to shut down a number of productions across the country. Members of the production shutdown teams in Los Angeles, who have successfully brought TV shows and movies to a grinding halt, have quietly ventured to smaller cities with booming shoot schedules like Atlanta and Albuquerque to train local WGA members to do the same. In collaboration with IATSE and the Teamsters, they’ve most recently affected production on the Netflix comedy pilot Little Sky in New Mexico and BMF in Georgia, to name just a few.
On picket lines in Los Angeles and New York City, writers have been joined nearly every day by members of SAG-AFTRA and the Animation Guild. Even labor unions in other sectors outside Hollywood have shown their solidarity with the WGA.
Last month, hundreds of union workers gathered in downtown Los Angeles to show their support. And on the eve of Day 50, United Teachers of Los Angeles — which went on strike for six days in 2019 — made its presence known at the Warner Bros lot, where L.A. teachers took to the surrounding sidewalks joined by the cast and crew of Abbott Elementary as well as the Nurses Union.
“We understand what it’s like to be disrespected by the boss. We know what it’s like to fight for dignity,” Gloria Martinez, UTLA VP of Elementary Schools, told Deadline while walking the picket line. “I can only empathize what a strike this long looks like, but I do know that a victory feels so much better after an arduous sacrifice.”
The Toll Of A Prolonged Strike
Not only is fatigue likely to begin setting in as WGA members make their way to the picket lines for an eighth consecutive week, but this is also a time when many may start to experience economic hardship from the work stoppage. The WGA West does have a $20 million strike fund to help members, and the Entertainment Community Fund — with donations from prominent members including J.J. Abrams, Greg Berlanti, Adam McKay, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Mike Schur and John Wells — has also provided financial assistance to workers affected by the walkout.
Still, the economic impact will only grow for writers as well as all who make a living in Hollywood production — though Keyser argued workers were already experiencing financial hardship due to a shifting industry structure.
“One of the things that companies have done to us is they’ve somewhat inoculated us, not entirely, but in part, from being off of work for some many months, because they created a gig economy inside a unionized workforce,” Keyser said. “We are more used to these downtimes than we were before. I don’t mean that it’s easy. I just mean that the difference between this and normal is not as great as it might be at some other point.”
Keeping Writers’ Spirits Up
One of the key ways the WGA has kept its membership energized over the past 50 days is through themed events. From album listening parties to show reunions to cultural gatherings, writers and their supporters have begun organizing in a more strategic way to help people find common ground on the picket lines.
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“Things like theme pickets are just a way to bring everyone together and have a good time while you’re doing something that’s incredibly hard, [which is] recognizing the dislocation and the harm that the companies have put on this industry and this town,” said chief negotiator Ellen Stutzman, who was holding the line outside Warner Bros on June 16.
While Stutzman was mobilizing crowds of WGA and UTLA members at WB, Beyoncé’s Renaissance album was bumping through a speaker set up on the sidewalk as writers held the picket line at Netflix. The theme was “Breakfast and Beyoncé”; in addition to the music, there were burritos, coffee and pastries to keep picketers going.
Meanwhile, in front of the Disney gates, hula dancers put on a performance for Aloha Day, bringing attention to Pacific Islanders in the WGA and throughout Hollywood.
“We’re here for a good time, but also a long time,” Alicia Carroll, who helped organize the Beyoncé Day at Netflix, told Deadline. “People are going to be out here every day for four hours. We want to make it as interesting as possible.”
The cultural gatherings in particular serve a greater purpose than simply bringing joy to the picket lines. They also raise awareness for the marginalized groups within the WGA that bring their unique experiences to their shows.
“I think if we don’t fight for codifying the size of writers rooms and some of the other rules that we’re fighting to formalize with this strike, it’s the people from marginalized groups that are going to be hurt the most,” Dana Ledoux Miller, one of the organizers of Aloha Day, told Deadline. “This is our moment to not back down and to show that we’re not going anywhere because AI can’t tell … nuanced cultural stories. We want to be able to tell our own stories and it won’t happen if we don’t win this fight.”
Adds Jorge Rivera, Vice Chair of the Latinx Writers Committee at the WGA, who has helped organize multiple themed pickets: “Picketing is serious business. It is a constitutionally protected form of free speech and central to any labor action. The folks that are complaining that we’re having too much fun expected us to be completely miserable while we’re doing it and we are not having it. Themed pickets help us build morale and keep our spirits up while we celebrate niche and sometimes marginalized sub-communities of writers and the world at large.”
Emphasis On Mental Health
Not to be overlooked is the importance of WGA members prioritizing mental health. One writer told Deadline they are dealing with extreme depression, and picketing helps them feel part of a community that can help them keep moving forward. While some observers have criticized the “fun pickets” calling out the WGA for having too much fun, these moments of happiness are helping many stay sane.
“I’ve seen things on social media where people say negative stuff about the special pickets we organize like this should be some kind of funeral march,” said Susan Hurwitz Arneson, WGA member and Morning Lot Coordinator at Sony. “I’m not belittling the seriousness of what’s happening. We’re all very aware that people’s lives and livings are being negatively impacted. But ours is a workers’ fight against giant, billion-dollar corporations who want to make money off of the product we create all while trying to grind us down to dust. I place the blame firmly on their shoulders and their unwillingness to bargain in good faith. We deserve a fair deal. Ultimately, the special pickets serve to unite us and keep up morale. They are shots of rocket fuel that keep us moving and motivated.”
Added writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, “I think it’s a little strange to say that people are having too much fun on the picket line. Everybody has gathered here because we all believe in a cause that we are fighting for. It’s fine to smile and hug and chant together and make the best of it — but we’re also all jobless. So it’s not like this is what we want to be doing.”
A writers’ assistant and script coordinator shared with Deadline that the strike has been “mentally and financially taxing, not just for [WGA members] but especially below-the-line workers.” They said that when they see observers say picketers are “partying it up” it “pisses” them off because it could not be farther from the truth.
“We’re all out here fighting for our lives. I stood out here from day one; a warrior for the cause, here for battle,” they said.
“We’re Going To Win”
DGA members are now voting on whether to ratify the deal its leadership made with the AMPTP. Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA continues studio negotiations, with its contract set to expire June 30.
As WGA leadership looks ahead, Keyser said he expects the guild’s resolve will not waver because “there is no reason for us to rush back to the job that will not be there or won’t be there in a way that creates not just a short-term gig but a long-term career.”
“It’s pretty clear to me and to everyone else that the level of enthusiasm and commitment has only grown over time,” he said. “A resolution to the writers problems is going to run through the Writers Guild and not around us. So sooner or later they will come back to the table … it’s the fair and right thing to do. The history of writers is that we stick together and, when we do, we win, and we’re going to win this time too. Those companies need to hear that. They’re not going to be able to hide behind the doors of the AMPTP forever.”
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