The Writer’s Guild of America Strike: An Explainer

The WGA negotiated for months without success. ”Now we will do it through struggle.”

More than 11,000 members of the Writers Guild of America are on strike as of Tuesday, having failed to reach an agreement with the Hollywood studios and the streamers. The WGA is striking for the first time in 15 years as the film and TV writers it represents pursue new contracts in what they say is their most dire showdown yet.

The backstory: The union negotiated for six weeks with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount and Sony, under the umbrella of Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and failed to reach an agreement. Note how many of those companies are streamers—vastly different than the landscape in 2007, when the last writers’ strike took place. The union fought for the interests of WGA members across all sectors: features, episodic TV, comedy-variety and other non-prime-time programs. According to a letter from WGA to members announcing the strike, the action could meaningfully affect the TV and film industry, holding up movie release dates and altering the production of TV shows.

This isn’t just any contract negotiation, or any strike, due to the severity of the issues at hand—including the specter of using artificial intelligence in script-writing. WGA calls the writers’ current position an “existential” crisis, with the nature of the job itself at risk. The AMPTP members’ behavior, the union charges, “is creating a gig economy inside a union workforce, and their immovable stance in this negotiation has betrayed a commitment to further devaluing the profession of writing.”

The rules of engagement: The strike prohibits WGA members from working on “struck” companies. Writers may not start new writing projects during the strike, even if they work from home, according to the WGA. They are not allowed to attend meetings or have conversations about “new, pending or future projects or writing assignments with producers, directors or other representatives of any struck company.” Writers must honor all Guild picket lines and show up for picket duty.

The demands: In general, the demands are for fair compensation, better working conditions, increased residuals, and a policy on AI-generated work.

Specifically, however, the WGA’s asks are much more complicated. One issue is the transformation of the industry into a de-facto freelance work force. The WGA says that AMPTP, “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, [has] closed the door on their labor force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession.”

The companies have allowed streaming to devalue writers, the WGA charges, axing pay and downgrading working conditions at every level of experience. For TV staff, more writers than ever are working at guild minimum and often for fewer weeks. Or they’re working in a mini-room, in which writers are given fewer weeks and less pay to write shows, which often leaves showrunners without a writing staff to finish the season, according to a WGA memo.

Meanwhile, profits for companies are up and spending on content has increased.

The details: Following are the salient points from the WGA’s list of demands. You will see the term MBA here; it means Minimum Basic Agreement, the collective bargaining agreement that covers the benefits, rights, and protections for most of the work done by WGA members. The terms “minimums” refers to the WGA MBA minimums, the lowest amount of money a WGA member can receive for writing services.

  • Increase in minimum pay in all areas and for residuals, adjusted TV-series writing pay, increased contributions to pension and health plans, establish minimums for streaming, and more.
  • Pre-greenlight writing rooms to require a minimum staff of 6 writers. Minimum staff guaranteed at least 10 consecutive weeks of work. Once a show has been greenlit, the union wants a minimum one writer per episode, up to six episodes, and one writer for every two episodes afterwards, up to 12 writers. Slots must be set aside for writer-producers to prevent the studios from using only entry-level writers.
  • Contain use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects. AI “can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”
  • Improved residuals for streaming.

The AMPTP countered that it had offered “generous increases in compensation for writers as well as improvements in streaming residual” in a deal where writers would gain about $86 million per year. The WGA asked for more than $400 million.

“We had hoped to do this through reasonable conversation,” the WGA said in its statement announcing the strike. “Now we will do it through struggle.”

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