The WGA Wins Its Strike, but California Workers Face Uncertainty

The WGA Wins Its Strike, but California Workers Face Uncertainty

The WGA Wins Its Strike, but California Workers Face Uncertainty

The Hollywood writers’ union scores an impressive win, while Governor Newsom sells out strikers on other fronts. 


Last week, the Writers of Guild of America came to an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to end the 148-day writers’ strike in Hollywood. Guild members can vote through this weekend on the new contract, one with impressive wins on key issues including minimum staffing on shows, streaming revenues, and the application of AI technology in the industry.

The WGA considers the deal “exceptional,” but only days after announcing it, California labor relations took a step back. On Saturday, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed critical legislation from the state assembly that provided unemployment benefits to striking workers. Newsom’s veto now promises to wreak havoc for the state’s latest labor action, which has seen 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers—most of them in California—walking off the job this week in the largest healthcare strike in US history, while also jeopardizing the security of workers still taking part in the strikes by the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Los Angeles hotel employees.

Newsom’s veto did not come as a shock. He chose to remain neutral throughout the WGA and SAG strikes. That neutrality was no small gift to studio heads hoping to wear down striking writers. The studios could have easily reached a deal with the WGA in May, but they deliberately prolonged the strike, following the old robber barons’ playbook of punishing labor actions with more economic deprivation. In a July report, the industry trade publication Deadline quoted several anonymous studio executives from the AMPTP pronouncing that the cruelty is the point. “The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” one said. As Deadline’s Dominic Patten wrote, “Acknowledging the cold-as-ice approach, several other sources reiterated the statement. One insider called it ‘a cruel but necessary evil.’”

You don’t find too many people actually working to increase LA’s homeless population, but that’s whom the WGA and the SAG have been up against. Thankfully, guild members understood that solidarity remained essential in fighting off this bleed-them-dry strategy. Comedian Drew Carey knows somewhat better than Governor Newsom does what strikes can do to working people. That’s why he generously picked up the tab for WGA members out on the picket line at two diners, Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank and Swingers in West Hollywood. His tab ran to an estimated $10,000 a week, and it was sorely needed.

Newsom gave more cause for concern among California workers with his appointment of Laphonza Butler as his designated replacement for the late Senator Dianne Feinstein. A political operative, strategist, and lobbyist, Butler once served as an SEIU Local 2015 president, but that position now looks like a political stepping stone into state and national Democratic politics. While working for the corporate messaging firm SCRB Strategies, she advised Uber in its fight to stop a state referendum to provide a minimum wage to drivers, and served as a policy director for AirBnB, the lightly regulated jobs-killer in the hospitality industry. In a summer of historic labor activism, Butler’s rapid elevation into corporate advocacy roles for these name-brand players in the gig economy strikes a jarring note.

The encroaching gig-like working conditions of the streaming era were front and center in the WGA fight, as they are in the ongoing SAG work stoppage. “The companies’ behavior has created a gig economy inside a union workforce,” the WGA declared in early May, as the union launched the strike. “From their refusal to guarantee any level of weekly employment in episodic television, to the creation of a ‘day rate’ in comedy variety, to their stonewalling on free work for screenwriters and on AI for all writers, they have closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession.”

The WGA won on all those issues and more last week. Perhaps the union’s biggest victory was a guarantee of minimum staffing numbers on TV shows, assuring that the workloads for a series could no longer be offloaded onto fewer and fewer writers. The new deal secures not only baseline numbers for writing staffs; it also provides that younger writers stay on during a project’s production and post-production phases, so they can acquire the skills involved in producing and running shows.

The new deal also restructures the payment plan and guarantees a “second step” for screenwriters. Screenwriters used to get a half payment up front and half on delivery of the script. Dangling and delaying that second installment, sometimes for months, allowed producers to squeeze free work out of writers until producers chose to hand off the finished product to the studio. Under the new deal, writers are paid in installments that aren’t determined by the producer. After a writer delivers a full first draft or an original screenplay, there’s a guaranteed second step of paid writing. One-step deals are rarely that, with producers usually pushing for more work before payment. While producers will never stop asking for more, this provision at least guarantees that have to pay for of it. Studios had asked to drop it for remakes and other projects driven by pre-existing intellectual property contracts, but the WGA hoped to stave off the studios’ austerity-minded reliance on franchises and sequels by ensuring most feature films included the second step clause.

In addressing the rise of artificial intelligence, the issue that came to dominate news coverage of the strike, the WGA got a key forward-looking concession from the studios. For all that’s been said about AI’s potential to transform the industry, it remains an unknown quantity. Will it redefine the economics of the industry as streaming has, or sputter out as just another glorified gadget, like 3-D formatting?

Given the disastrous results that entertainment workers endured in past technological revolutions, the WGA struck an important blow by getting control of this technology at the outset of its potential industry-wide adoption. The WGA won four principal AI provisions in the agreement: AI cannot be used as source material or be used to undermine a writer’s credit; a writer can choose to use AI with the studio’s consent, but the studio can’t require the writer to use it; the company has to disclose to the writer if AI has been used to generate the material; and companies are prohibited from using a writer’s work to train AI.

On the long struggle to obtain transparency from producers in tallying viewer numbers on streaming platforms, the WGA managed to at least set the process in motion. The deal creates a bonus system that will increase residuals for writers, paying out after a show passes a designated threshold of viewers. It’s significant symbolically, since streamers had previously refused even to consider sharing basic streaming data, let alone revenues. And given Amazon Prime’s recent announcement that it plans to start running commercials, for which the corporations paying for those ads will want some accounting, those figures are unlikely to stay secret forever.

The remainder of the deal covers standard labor issues such as pension benefits and wages and other financial tables. Taken together, the agreement will bring in $233 million a year to guild members.

In short, the WGA proved what much of the rest of the American labor movement is demonstrating at the end of this summer of work stoppages: Aåtrikes work, and solidarity can triumph over shortsighted greed. It’s an important lesson to keep in mind as leaders like Newsom try to play both sides—a position that has so far only hurt one side, California workers.

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