On Monday November 5, the Writers Guild of America went on strike for the first time in nearly twenty years. Last minute negotiations with the employers’ organisation, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) failed to reach a deal. The WGA (which for perverse historical reasons is actually two unions, the WGA west and the WGA east) ‘downed pencils’. This followed, for example, a mass meeting of the WGA west in which 3,000 writers voted 90% in favour of strike action.
It’s a strike of writers who work in television and film production – including the staff of major TV shows from Desperate Housewives to Heroes, but also including the gag writers for Letterman, etc.
The issues in dispute are mainly to do with ‘residuals’ from DVD sales and internet downloads. Currently, writers get 0.3% (of what the studios are paid). They are demanding 0.6% - which would be an average increase of 4 to 8 cents for every $15 DVD sold. The current deal, and therefore demand, is the same for paid internet downloads. For free internet downloads, the studios are insisting that writers should be paid nothing, claiming they are ‘promotional’ only; the Writers Guild points out that the studios make money from advertising even on free downloads, and so are demanding their 0.6% of that, too.
The WGA strike has had widespread support from the Screen Actors Guild (whose contract with the AMPTP, along with the Directors Guild, is up for renewal in June). A major step in the run-up to the strike was a statement of support by all the leading television ‘showrunners’. These are writers, and so WGA members, but because of the way American TV series work they are also producers (and sometimes directors, too). The studios evidently hadn’t expected the showrunners to be so solidly behind the strike.
The studios have already been playing very dirty: the American press is full of cartoons and other propaganda portraying the writers as rich, privileged, and selfish, and their action – which is gradually bringing all the major TV shows to a halt – as destructive of all the other people (from electricians to truck drivers, etc) whose livelihoods depend on those shows.
A small minority of screenwriters are very highly paid (though only a very few on a scale comparable to the top studio execs). Most – when they are in work – are paid well, because the WGA has been able to enforce decent minimum standards in the past. Like actors, though, writers can spend long periods out of work, when residuals (basically, royalties) are their main income.
And in any case, all they are demanding is a share of the profits the production companies make.
The Writers Guild has a strong (craft) trade union culture. Unlike in Britain, film and television writing in the USA is close to being a closed shop; and there is a much stronger sense of collective trade union identity than there is here. It is a condition of membership, for example, that a writer undertakes 20 hours picket duty a week... So far the strike is very solid.
For more information, see for instance http://unitedhollywood.blogspot.com/, an unofficial blog by a group of ‘strike captains’ on the west coast.