The latest WGA strike began on May 2, 2023.
The WGA, or Writer’s Guild of America, is a labor union that represents writers who lend their craft to various American media productions. Technically, two separate unions (one headquartered in New York and one in Los Angeles) make up the WGA, but they act in tandem.
Without needing to get into the weeds of what a labor union is and does, we’ll say that the WGA negotiates the best compensation for its members. They negotiate with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which itself represents the big giants in media.
No, really. The Alliance includes, among others, Amazon, Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery, Disney, Sony, Universal, and broadcasting networks like NBC, ABC, CBS, and FOX. Big corporations prioritize different things (like profit) than individual writers, who need petty things like food and retirement savings.
When the Alliance and WGA cannot reach a deal on what fair compensation is, the writers go on strike. Writers have gone on strike several times in the WGA’s history: in 1960, 1981, 1985, 1988, 2007, and now, 2023.
What Caused The WGA Strike?As a bit of background, while everything “Hollywood” may conjure up images of extravagant wealth, there’s a stark difference between the CEOs, big-name actors and directors, and the writers. No show would exist without writers. However, writers are paid so little that almost no writer can support themselves on just writing alone.
The specific issues the Alliance and WGA disagree on this time can be found here. A quick summary is that writers want greater residuals to match a changing world. Wait, residuals?
When TV episodes re-air, the writers get a cut of the profits from each airing: a residual. However, with rising rates of streaming, writers get fewer payments since shows no longer re-air. In addition, when companies no longer want to pay residuals, they can just wipe writers’ and directors’ hard work from servers without prior warning. There goes a source of income and someone’s hard work.
Big-name studios also have the ability to cut shows, which any Netflix fan is all too keenly aware of. Writers still work on cut shows, however. Instead of paying them a decent rate, the Alliance wants to pay them by the day. This means potentially zero pay-off for hard work and no guarantees of employment beyond tomorrow.
Additionally, the WGA wants higher wages to match the rising cost of living and health insurance for individuals. As well as a guarantee that writers’ rooms not be cut in favor of AI. The WGA’s demands also seem to offer better storytelling for studios, too. Having at least one writer for an entire post’s length? That would go a long way to establishing continuity.
Alas, no dice.
The Role of Artificial Intelligence In This WGA Strike
The WGA’s demands also bring up questions related to AI. With the explosion of AI in recent months, writers expressed concerns that big-name studios will cut them in favor of machines doing all the work.
While AI does seem to have its place and society is still figuring out what that looks like, the concerns are very valid. For example, the Russo brothers recently expressed enthusiasm about using AI to create films.
Sure, what they describe might be fun self-insert fanfiction, but it’s not exactly writing at its best. While self-insert fanfiction has its place, it’s very rarely art. Unless you’re Dante Alighieri, that is.
However, currently, AI is less of a threat. After all, if you’ve spent any amount of time actually using ChatGPT to write, you’ll realize that it’s not very good. Sure, at a skim, the writing flows well and sounds professional. However, if you look closely, it becomes clear that AI models say a lot of fancy words without much substance. The wording is repetitive and vague, the arguments are circular, and the facts are fuzzy.
The problem is that this could all change, and quickly. With film producers like the Russos eager to leave their humanity behind in favor of expediency, ensuring writers stay employed can protect storytelling as an artistic medium as well as ensure writers won’t starve.
A world in which a computer writes all stories makes for a fascinating sci-fi movie, but a terrible real-life scenario. People watch (and read!) stories for the humanity, not for the requisite number of explosions.
What’s The Immediate Impact of a WGA Strike?At the 2023 MetGala on May 1, a number of celebrities stated their support for the striking writers. Olivia Wilde, Quinta Brunson, and Amanda Seyfried were among them. Late-night hosts such as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and Stephen Colbert also stated their support.
Late-night shows will actually face the brunt of the immediate fallout, with shows pretty much immediately stopping airing. Writers work daily on these shows, and won’t be working during the strike.
Scripted shows will start to slow down over the next few weeks unless a deal is made. Eventually, depending on how long this continues, movies may feel the effects as well. In the meantime, studios will scramble to hire non-union writers for paltry wages.
What’s Next?The longest WGA strike occurred in 1988 when the strike lasted five months. 2007’s strike lasted 100 days. (In fact, now large-name celebrities like Meyers were on the picket lines of the 2007 WGA strike.)
The effects were pretty apparent, too. Not just during the strike either; instead, the effects can be seen even in a rewatch of now-completed shows. Shows like Scrubs and LOST received truncated seasons. 24 aired a year later. Heroes and Prison Break never recovered.
What will it take for a deal to be reached? It’s anyone’s guess. Clearly, writers are not going to stop asking for basic wages that would be pennies out of any of the production company’s CEOs’ salaries.
Even when a deal is eventually reached, though, there will likely be more strikes in the future. Greed may drive a lot of Hollywood, but the writers are the ones who actually provide the framework upon which everyone else builds their legacies.
As writer Rafael Agustin said,
I’m angry because the WGA is inevitably going to win. Still, the AMPTP insisted on stopping an entire industry as opposed to properly compensating the labor force that helps them make billions.”