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To Live and Strike in Hollywood

Writer Gary Phillips traces the history of the Writers Guild, the militancy of Hollywood unions, beginning with the writers, the difference between the writers and actors, and why the actors remain on strike.

WGA Strike May 4 2023. Credit: ufcw770, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons,

In the seminal book The Hollywood Writers’ Wars by Nancy Lynn Schwartz, completed by her mother Sheila Schwartz upon her daughter’s untimely death, the internal and external battles of Writers Guild of America, WGA, formed in 1933, were chronicled.  The Schwartz’s note of this then bourgeois gig:

“It was a great time to be prosperous, young, and progressive in the movie kingdom. You could live better than nine-tenths of the nation yet remain, through political activity, intimately connected to the pulse of humanity.”

That connection would prove to not just be blue-collar lives put to paper and screen by a bunch of lefties and their hardcore red buddies. By the 1940s, writers were seeking to better their working conditions. Not surprisingly as in other labor struggles, they were met with resistance from the bosses. And it wasn’t just writers who found themselves on the front lines. 

On October 5, 1945, Bloody Friday, striking set decorators attempting to stop scabs from entering the Warner’s lot were assaulted by police and private security wielding billy clubs, fire houses gushing pressurized water and tear gas. This strike and several other militant ones led to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, with Congress overriding a veto by President Harry Truman. Among its provisions, the Act outlawed so-called wildcat strikes.

The latest strike by the WGA was no wildcat action against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the AMPTP. Everyone from the Silicon Valley computer bros turned studio execs, the legacy bosses a la Disney/ABC/Fox and the related personnel like those who supply craft services saw it coming. For the most part the night sticks didn’t come out, though there were several incidents of cars entering the studio lots shaving the distance between it and a picketer. And if a scribe was scabbing, they could do so by zoom and their computer in privacy. 

This strike was important in its long-term ramifications too. For the first time since 1960 when both unions walked out, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists, SAG-AFTRA, went on strike. This occurred roughly a month and a half after the writers when the actors’ Minimum Basic Agreement, MBA, came due. 

For the WGA there were several points of contention. The two main ones were the nature of how residuals were being calculated in the age of streaming, and the onrush of AI as writer. A residual is a percentage of your initial fee as the script writer when the show you wrote or co-wrote is rerun domestically or internationally. This is how it’s still figured for network shows. Heretofore the formula streamers used was a percentage of the earned licensing fee paid to the actors and writers. But only they knew the numbers of subscribers who’d decided to view your program – and therefore didn’t pay out on how many sets of eyes were watching.  

During the strike, it was clear those halcyon days written about by the Schwartzes’ were long gone. Several articles penned by established Hollywood writers, those who had sold a show, ran a writers’ room, even wrote movies, still had to have side hustles, and sometimes go on welfare. In my neighborhood there’s the World Harvest Food Bank. It’s a market where for forty dollars patrons can fill up their basket with fresh produce. If you can’t pay, you can still get food as long as you did a volunteer stint. Many a striker still shops there.

Michael Schulman’s piece in The New Yorker, ““Orange Is the New Black” Signaled the Rot Inside the Streaming Economy” is an example of how writers and actors were screwed by the streamers. The article told of the plight of various actors in the Netflix show like Kimiko Glenn and others who were recognized in the streets from their reoccurring roles. But Glenn received foreign residuals totaling less than thirty dollars. Imagine how pitiful the amounts earned by actors in far less hit shows like “Orange” got for streaming residuals. Even the showrunners of the show, not paid starvation wages to begin with, were stunned to find out some 105 million viewers had watched at least one episode of the show. They too did not receive residuals commensurate with those numbers. The MBA now calls for success-based bonuses.

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As to AI, there are several; new guardrails in place such as the writer can use AI when performing writing services if the company consents, but the company can’t require the writer to use the likes of ChatGPT. But as many have observed, the digital genie is out of the virtual bottle. For certain there are already scripts and manuscripts being produced by an AI program with the writer giving the work a human rewrite. My short story “The Story Conference” from June on this site doesn’t seem too far off to me. Various outfits such as Meta continue to use AI to scrape, as the term goes, writers’ works — including several of my books, training the AI to replace the flesh and blood writer.

Though the Writers Guild has reached a tentative deal with the studios, the Screen Actors Guild is still on strike and continues to walk the picket line in front of Netflix’s New York offices.  (Credit: Eden, Janine and Jim from New York City, CC BY 2.0  //  Stansbury Forum)

More immediately, the actors remain on strike. It seemed a slam dunk given the WGA’s progress, that as the actors’ talks began with the AMPTP an agreement was within reach. After five days the producers walked away from the bargaining table. They claimed SAG-AFTRA sought a one-dollar levy per year per subscriber to a streaming service. “A bridge too far,” co-CEO of Netflix Ted Sarandos stated. President of SAG-AFTRA Fran Dreschler stated the figure was exaggerated by some sixty percent.

The reality is actors have several distinct issues from the writers they need to have addressed. Be it the notion of self-taping for an audition and the use of AI to capture voice, face, and form. To see more of what SAG-AFTRA is demanding, check out their strike website.   

While I’ve admittedly lessened my presence on the strike line in support of my brother and sister actors, I still get out to picket.  And when I’m driving there, might be as I’ve seen more than once in the last few days, a driverless car on the roadway. What does it say about the growing presence of AI that these autonomous vehicles are no longer an unusual presence among us?

Follow the link for Gary Phillips’ new book:
The Unvarnished Gary Phillips: A Mondo Pulp Collection

[Gary Phillips is a member of the WGA and writes prose as well. His latest is The Unvarnished Gary Phillips: A Mondo Pulp Collection.]