There’s been a storm brewing in Hollywood of late, a storm that those who followed the trades, or noticed a sudden drop in new TV shows, about 10 years ago might recognize. The Writers’ Guild of America, West and The Writers Guild Of America, East, the two unions that represents screenwriters in film and TV (as well as radio and new media), have been renegotiating their contracts with AMPTP, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and after an initial offer that fell well short of their demands, the WGA went on to members to seek authorization for a potential strike beginning when the current contract expires on May 1st.
There have been three major writers’ strikes in Hollywood history, but the freshest in the memory was in late 2007 and early 2008, when the WGA downed tools, largely in an effort to win residuals for so-called “new media” (streaming and download video), then essentially in its infancy. It led to production on TV essentially shutting down, movies forced to shoot with half-finished scripts (shown by the crappy results in films like “Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen” and “Quantum Of Solace”), and a cost to the Los Angeles economy of somewhere between $400 million and $2 billion.
Those who suffered through the last one, which lasted three months, have been fearful that another could take place — savings were decimated, jobs were lost, and some in the industry never retained the foothold that they once had. But while subsequent renegotiations have been relatively smooth, in part because of the scars from the previous strike, this time the two sides seemed to be at loggerheads.
The guilds’ asks are relatively simple. Despite the TV boom, writer earnings have gone down by nearly a quarter, in part because most shows now get a smaller order of episodes, but still hold their scribes under exclusivity preventing them from working on other series. The guild asked for “modest gains” for writers, as well as additional funding for the WGA healthcare plan, pensions and family leave.
But the AMPTP’s initial offer was reportedly miles off the mark, and so the guild’s leadership polled its members, asking them for the authorization to strike. And that authorization was resoundingly granted: a record turnout of 67.5% of eligible members (6310 people) voted an enormous 96.3% in favor. To compare, 5507 members voted 90.3% in favor in 2007 for the strike that ended up taking place.
So time to batten down the hatches, right? The strike is on? Not so much, no: in fact, the resounding nature of yesterday’s results probably make a strike less likely rather than more likely to happen. The reason that the WGA leadership called the strike was not because they wanted to shut down — no one wants a strike. It was in the hope that by showing the AMPTP that the union was united and prepared to down tools, they’d show them that they weren’t messing around.
And that’s exactly what’s happened. The unity and leadership that the WGA have shown is impressive, and the producers’ side are much less likely to continue to lowball now that the guild have shown that their members are resoundingly prepared for a long strike if need be. A more divided, much lower turnout would have encouraged the AMPTP to call the guild’s bluff, in the hope that strikers would cave after a few weeks.
This isn’t to say that a strike won’t happen — there’s still nearly a week of negotiations to go, and Hollywood’s capacity to attempt to fuck over writers knows no bounds. If it happens, the writers deserve your absolute support: these are the people who create the entertainment you consume en masse, and are only trying to ensure that they can make a fair living from it courtesy of hugely successful corporations. But fingers crossed, the results of yesterday’s vote mean that we might not get that far.