Writers Guild of America striking over 'gig economy'

Everything you need to know about the recent WGA strikes.

Jessica Mckeown
16th May 2023
Image Credit: Twitter @DiscussingFilm
The Writers Guild of America, frequently shortened to WGA, is currently on strike over a dispute against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The main issue in the dispute is over fair pay in the streaming era, an issue which has been a long time coming in an increasingly streaming focused culture.

The board of directors of the WGA, including both the East and West branches, voted unanimously for a strike after negotiations beginning in March failed to reach new contracts. An estimated 11,500 unionised screenwriters have joined the picket lines that started on Tuesday 2nd May. The screen-writers have been joined on the picket lines in solidarity by actors such as Frozen's Josh Gad and Agents of Shield's Clark Gregg. The WGA previously went on strike in 2007-2008, seeking increased funding for the writers against larger companies. The strike lasted for 100 days and cost the Californian economy an estimated $2.1 billion.

"The companies' behaviour has created a gig economy inside a union workforce"

Members have been told by the Guild that all script-writing must immediately cease. The most immediate impact is on the late night talk shows, such as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, which will immediately go dark and air re-runs. When asked at the MET Gala, Jimmy Fallon voiced his support for the strikes: "I wouldn't have a show if it wasn't for my writers, I support them all the way."

Next to be affected will be soap operas as they are traditionally written not long before they are filmed. Current seasons of the largest comedies and dramas are expected to continue airing as normal as they have been written and filmed well in advance of airing. Disruption to film production is unlikely unless the strike drags on for extended periods of time.

Image: Twitter @jessicaaphan

In the fifteen years since the last WGA strike, there has been a shift toward streaming which has ultimately led to writers being treated as gig workers and not getting appropriate residuals through streaming. For broadcast television, residuals depend on the success of the show meaning the more successful the show is, the higher the residuals that writers receive. However, for shows made for streaming, writers are paid a set amount of money irrespective of how successful the show is, which means they are losing out. Streaming platforms such as Netflix have fed into this problem, dropping shows from their catalogue in favour of making their own Netflix Originals. Furthermore, the length of a season has been shortened, a side effect of the binging model, in turn limiting how much a writer can make.

Another issue that has arisen specifically out of the tendency to release a whole season on a streaming platform on the same day is the scrapping of a traditional 'Pilot' episode which would typically gauge the success of the show before it is completely green-lit. This has been replaced by a 'mini room', a condensed writer's room that means writers may work for longer on a show that isn't picked up. For example, the Shadow & Bone spinoff Six of Crows has allegedly already been written, but is yet to be green-lit by Netflix.

For shows made for streaming, writers are paid a set amount of money irrespective of how successful the show is

The most prominent debate this year is in regards to the use of artificial intelligence particularly in the arts. WGA proposed regulation on the use of artificial intelligence in script-writing stating that "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". This proposal was rejected by AMPTP who countered by offering "annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology".

The WGA issued the following statement: "The companies' behaviour has created 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."

"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, they have closed the door on their labour force and opened the door to writing as an entirely freelance profession."

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