The Screen Strikes

Graphic by Mariam Diakite / Graphics Center

As of of publication, it has been 142 days since the Writers Guild of America (WGA), a collective labor union which includes 11,500 screenwriters, started striking against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), bringing the the entertainment industry to a halt, according to the New York Times. The AMPTP, which “negotiates 58 industry-wide collective bargaining agreements on behalf of hundreds of motion picture and television producers,” according to the group’s website, has powerful members like Disney, NBCUniversal and more. WGA was joined by the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) on July 14, and the two unions have been on strike since.

For unions and people entering the workforce, such a publicized strike may be an indication of better working conditions and stronger unions. It could mean that in the future, unions will be more capable of protecting their workers by improving work conditions and compensation. 

Unions have historically played an important role in ensuring workers fair wages and conditions. The United Auto Workers Union, for instance, has allowed workers in the automotive industry to successfully negotiate higher wages and increased benefits.  

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, unions have lost some influence because of Right to Work laws, which allow employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of union membership, potentially diminishing a union’s financial resources and bargaining power. 

I believe that these strikes, by supporting the concerns of writers and actors and demanding better pay and treatment, are a very good thing. Because entertainment is so pervasive it’s given the spotlight, and therefore a chance to tell the world about workers’ rights and the strength of unified workers. 

On May 2, WGA members began striking in response to mistreatment and job insecurity in the so-called “streaming era,” according to the union’s information page

Protesting writers are demanding better pay, increased residuals, and guarantees about the number of writers involved in writing a show, according to The Washington Post. Residuals are a long-term payment structure developed the last time writers and actors were on strike together in the 1960s, according to ABC

Guaranteeing the numbers of writers involved with a project would mean writing teams aren’t understaffed, overworked, or made to rely on AI. SAG-AFTRA is advocating for a 9% increase from their former AMPTP deal and are asking for a 14% raise in union minimums, in line with the increased cost of living, as detailed in Variety. Overall, according to CNBC, the US consumer price index has increased by 13% since 2021.

It’s not just writers who want better treatment. 65,000 actors joined the protest with similar requests. Both writers and actors suffer from under-compensation and the threat that AI may pose to their work. At a protest on Wednesday September 13, the President of SAG-AFTRA Fran Drescher, said to NBC Los Angeles, “We’re losing the essence of the art form. And it’s because of these top-tier, highly greedy, self-absorbed executives that frankly are ruining it for everybody but themselves.” 

In a Security and Exchange Commission filing on Sept. 5, Warner Bros. Discovery claimed they could be “negatively impacted” up to $500 million, a comparatively small part of their projected 2023 earnings of $10.5-11 billion, according to Forbes

More pressingly, according to Variety, WGA and SAG-AFTRA members have reported feelings of anxiety around running out of savings and losing ground in their careers as the strike continues. Even crew members and support staff involved in entertainment are feeling the financial pressure, according to the New York Times.

While negotiations are happening between the unions and producers, the New York Times reported there isn’t as much discussion as workers have called for. While studios have made offers for better pay, the unions are demanding wages that are liveable, not just higher. Thus, negotiations came to a standstill, according to Vulture.

However, not all producers have been hostile. A24 is one example of a production company, not part of AMPTP, still allowed to produce and promote some individual productions because they complied with WGA and SAG-AFTRA demands. According to Screen Rant, this exception lends them more credibility in contrast to other studios and producers.

WGA met with the AMPTP to resume negotiations on Sept. 20, according to Variety.

The public nature of the industry means both sides are leveraging popular opinion to their advantage, and unions nationwide benefit from increased coverage over union activity. On Sept. 13, Marvel’s VFX artists voted unanimously to unionize, and Broadway stagehands and other backstage workers made headway on protections after the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees threatened Broadway producers with a strike. I believe there is hope that prospective and current workers, even those outside the entertainment industry, will reap the rewards of increased attention around worker power.  

This is a good sign for unions across the country, and an encouraging idea for all those who are entering or about to enter the workforce. 

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