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Over 11,000 TV and Film Writers Go on Strike Across the Country

The WGA strike has the potential to deal a blow to systemic hyper-exploitation in entertainment, and establish workers as a fighting force within the industry.

Ezra Brain

May 2, 2023
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At midnight on Tuesday, May 2, over 11,000 writers organized with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike for the first time in 15 years. This strike has the potential to be incredibly disruptive to the entire entertainment industry, effectively grinding much of TV and film production to a halt. The key issues of this strike surround pay — specifically attached to the growth of streaming content — and concerns over how the bosses of the entertainment industry may use AI to “automate” parts or all of the writing process. 

This strike dawns at a key moment for both the entertainment industry and the labor movement as a whole. As the aborted IATSE strike of 2021 shows — a strike sold out at the final moment by the bureaucracy — there is a lot of anger amongst the working class of the entertainment industry about how the bosses have used changes in production and distribution to underpay and hyper-exploit workers. The growth of streaming has not been met with equivalent changes to pay for workers on these projects and has also resulted in shorter television seasons and smaller writers rooms — a phenomenon known as “mini-rooms” — which has caused fewer writers to be hired on these projects. These shifts related to streaming have resulted in half of WGA members working for the minimum rate, as compared to one third working for the minimum rate ten years ago. This strike also dawns as both the directors and actors unions — DGA and SAG, respectively — negotiate their contracts which expire on June 30. 

The question of AI is also vital as this is the first major labor struggle surrounding the use of this new technology. Writers are concerned that their work could be used by bosses to feed into AI programs to generate new scripts — a technique which could be used to further depress hiring and wages — and also that writers could be hired to revise scripts generated by AI. This potential use of technology by the bosses against the working class is indicative of how technology is used under capitalism. Rather than making workers’ lives easier by reducing labor time so they can have more free time without losing wages, technology is used by bosses to make workers’ lives more precarious through speed-ups, automation leading to layoffs, and a variety of other attacks. While the WGA strike is the first major labor action about the use of AI, it will likely not be the last.

The WGA’s demands have the potential to shake up how the industry functions. Just as the potential IATSE strike revealed the exploitation that underpins the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, the WGA strike highlights the fact that exploitation of workers is as inherent to the entertainment industry as it is to all other industries under capitalism. A recently viral story from a writer about attending an awards show (where the show he wrote on won the top award) with a negative balance in his bank account reveals that, behind the performative glamor of Hollywood lurks precarity and exploitation. The writers are striking because they deserve more than the crumbs they are getting from the bosses. The victory of this strike has the potential to meaningfully change how pay works industry-wide. 

The potential impact of this strike stretches beyond just the entertainment industry. The 2007 WGA strike — the last Hollywood strike — lasted 100 days and cost the state of California over two billion dollars in lost revenue. This current strike dawns amidst economic challenges for both entertainment companies — as represented in the recent layoffs at Disney and the on-going financial underperformance of Netflix — and the overall economy. As economists remain concerned over a potential recessions and a banking crisis — kicked off by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank — threatens on the horizon. 

In addition, there are signs that the labor movement is reawakening and surging into a greater degree of struggle than has been seen in recent decades. Following “Striketober” in 2021, to the victories of the ALU and Starbucks United in 2022, to the current wave of education strikes, to the potential UPS strike later this year, we are seeing workers increasingly waking up to the fact that they are essential and the bosses are not. This shift in the subjectivity of the working class gives extra fuel to this WGA strike as compared to 2007. The Hollywood Teamsters have already announced their support for the strike, as have the DGA, SAG, and IATSE. Deepening the support and solidarity between these unions will be critical to ensuring the success of the strike.

Specifically, it is vital that the rank-and-file of WGA join with the rank-and-file of SAG and DGA to demand that their respective union leaderships take up this struggle, which unites all sectors of the Hollywood workforce. The expiring SAG and DGA contracts give these specific unions a greater amount of leverage to potentially join and grow the strike, building toward a near-general strike of the film and TV industry. 

For too long, the bosses of the entertainment industry have enriched themselves on the exploitation of workers and the WGA strike has the potential to deal a blow to this level of systemic hyper-exploitation and establish workers as a fighting force within the industry, in a moment where the labor movement is reawakening.

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Ezra Brain

Ezra is a NYC based theatre artist and teacher.

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