The only way working conditions in the entertainment industry will improve is through good old-fashioned solidarity with striking workers — including by nonunion Hollywood workers like me standing with unionized actors and writers on the picket line.
Members of SAG-AFTRA and WGA go on strike at Netflix, Sunset Gower, and Paramount Studios on July 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Momodu Mansaray / Getty Images)
Nobody wanted to be working in the office at 6:00 p.m. on the last night of contract talks. By 8:00 p.m., after a couple cups of coffee too many and more conversation through the ranks than I’d heard in a previous season of network television, I found out that I wouldn’t be working in a writers’ room again for quite some time. There was consolation in email chains with fellow assistants coming to life, a couple phone calls from friends working as production assistants on other shows, and that same text from crewmembers and producers alike: Here we go. Here we go, indeed.
Fifteen years ago, my parents sold my childhood home, pulled my siblings and me out of school, and left show business behind. That was the last time the Writers Guild of America (WGA) struck. Friends lost homes, left the state. I didn’t know much about the politics behind contract negotiations at the time — all I’d seen was the devastation of a work stoppage in the entertainment industry.
Growing up in Los Angeles with ambitions to write, it wasn’t uncommon to be told, “stay out of Hollywood.” Tough business, feast or famine, you’ll never make it, etc. Fifteen years later, they were right: it is a tough business, and I haven’t made it. But it can be made better by supporting striking writers and actors once again, whatever the cost.
In the battle between people and profits — between my WGA colleagues, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA), and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — I’m nobody. I’m the first casualty in the conflict, shot down on day one: I’m a nonunion writers’ production assistant, a writers’ PA to the initiated. When the work stops, I have no health care benefits to rely on, no cushion of savings, no Guild strike fund. I’m the lowest in the pecking order in an office hit by a nuclear warhead.
In the world of PAs, the role of writers’ PA is a coveted one. The job lies just beyond the ranks of one of the most powerful unions in Hollywood and is the surest way to get your foot in the door of a writers’ room. My duties in the writers’ room revolve primarily around food, office supplies, tech support, and more food. I handle all the subconscious needs that a working writer has. When they reach for a 0.7 mm blue roller gel pen, it’s there. Coffee is always in the pot. Paper is always in the printer. Breakfast, lunch, dinner — always on time. I have unparalleled access to the prefrontal cortex of production: a showrunner who has forty-seven seconds between two-hour meeting blocks to eat the sesame bagel — toasted, light cream cheese, and lox — you bring them. Essentially, anything and everything asked of you, you do.
Being a PA is the ground floor. It is a job that has never been unionized and probably won’t be. Production needs workers that slip around red tape, that aren’t beholden to any minimums or maximums like union crew, that can do the dirtiest work for the least amount. I’ve seen my share of back-lot mania, just like in the movies: a slalom of gaudily costumed extras weaving around grips pushing a twelve-by-twelve frame, a director of photography sneaking a smoke, a first assistant director screaming into the void. I’m the gofer who has spilt oat milk, half-caff on his shirt, who is scraping dog shit off the curb with today’s call sheet in front of the dolly track, asking you to please wait until we get this shot to cross.
PAs work the longest hours, get paid the least, and are the most susceptible to workplace abuse. As a PA, you’re the grease between the cogs of production: smoothing each machination, crushed between edges of blunt steel. You will be told that the job is exploratory, a stepping stone toward joining a union — sentiments intended to keep you contented as you sweat and bleed for years in a no-man’s-land role. You will be the last to clock out, the first to be cut free when the going gets tough.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my job, and I’ve worked hard to get here. But most PAs will never reach the threshold of a union like I have. In a year or two, I could be writing my first episode of network television and joining the WGA.
The reality of the industry today is that many PAs are less preoccupied with next season and more concerned with getting by right now. Many make their nut in guaranteed overtime pay, a bump to a measly near-minimum hourly rate but a far cry from livability in Los Angeles or New York. Most PAs simply don’t have the means to explore their role for long, and they leave the industry emotionally, financially, and physically exhausted.
PAs are also told that this is paying your dues. You may ask yourself: Paying dues to what? To the very same content-eating-shitting-creating machine that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA find themselves squared off against. Regardless of our individual titles and contracts, we all have the same essential goal — survival in an industry increasingly hostile to those who make it run — as unrealistic of a goal as Disney CEO Bob Iger may think that is.
A decision to strike is made after untold hours of back-and-forth, hand-wringing, and browbeating, in a negotiation worth billions of dollars. During the weeks of talks, it’s all anyone can talk about. In the days before contracts expire, the questions become more pointed: Do you really expect things to get better? Subtly and not so subtly, crew, cast, caterers, and the electrician checking a blown fuse in the office remind you of just how massive this undertaking is, and of the widespread pain it will inflict.
The power of the WGA, and any local, comes through solidarity. Solidarity not only in the ranks, but solidarity with nonunion workers like me who join the picket line, with the Teamster in a ten-ton truck who refuses to cross the line, and even with those A-listers livestreaming themselves handing out muffins at that same line. Showing up to walk a line near you is something anyone can do, union or not, to support the workers fighting for their due. Taking to social media to voice support for actors and writers is another accessible means of support. Both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA have comprehensive resources on their websites for those seeking to lend a hand.
In Hollywood’s ongoing trade dispute, like in the struggle against any oppressor, working people are stronger when they organize — for me, strength comes not just through the privilege of officially joining the WGA with a freelance episode or optioned script, but through organizing.
By providence, persistence, or sheer stupidity, I’m a part of this industry. I believe in moviemaking, in the comfort the 9/8 central slot brings to an American household on a Sunday night in an otherwise bleak and disinviting world. I’m still fighting for a place at the table, but I stand squarely behind my brothers and sisters in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.Original post