Most workers in the US are barred from claiming unemployment benefits if they go on strike, penalizing them for exercising one of their most fundamental rights. New legislation in California and elsewhere is trying to rectify that injustice.

Members of WGA and SAG-AFTRA walk a picket line outside of the HBO and Amazon New York City headquarters on September 7, 2023. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

Just before 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on picket lines across the United States, an anonymous executive explained their thinking in Deadline.

“The endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses,” the studio executive told the outlet, which is one of the three trade publications owned by the Penske Media Corporation that embattled Hollywood executives have used to launder their messaging during the work stoppage. Another “insider” called the approach “a cruel but necessary evil.”

Now, as the WGA strike enters its fourth month and the SAG-AFTRA strike nears month three, the executives’ hopes have come to pass. The Hollywood Reporter (another Penske property) reports that many strikers, owing months of back rent or falling behind on mortgage payments, are facing eviction.

Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) president and CEO Bob Beitcher told the publication that some workers and their families are living in cars. The MPTF has been giving $1,500 grants to workers, and other organizations are similarly assisting the efforts: the SAG-AFTRA Foundation has raised millions for emergency funds, and the Entertainment Community Fund, a long-standing safety net of sorts for entertainment workers, has thus far disbursed over $5.4 million to workers, averaging more than $500,000 per week, up from $75,000 a week at the start of 2023.

But it isn’t enough. California, where the bulk of aid recipients live, is mired in a housing crisis, with rental prices skyrocketing. Throw in the end of COVID-19 eviction protections and you have a desperate situation — and still no end in sight for the strike.

That’s why organized labor has renewed efforts to extend unemployment insurance eligibility to strikers.

Making Strikers’ Unemployment Insurance the Law

Currently, only New York and New Jersey permit striking workers to apply for unemployment.

In New York, workers once had to wait seven weeks before claiming benefits, but thanks to a 2020 change, that delay is only two weeks, and benefits can be obtained for up to twenty-six weeks. In New Jersey, striking workers likewise can get benefits after two weeks, and can continue to do so for up to twenty-six weeks.

In California, pushed by the strikes — which also include some fifteen thousand hotel workers in the Los Angeles area — elected officials have prepared a bill of their own, backed by the California Labor Federation (CLF), the California IATSE Council, Actors’ Equity, the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers, and the California Nurses Association.

The legislation, Senate Bill 799, would allow workers to claim unemployment after they’ve been on strike for two weeks. Having passed it through the State Assembly Insurance Committee last week, legislators have until September 14 to send it to California governor Gavin Newsom’s desk.

“For nearly four months, the studios’ strategy has been to starve writers into accepting a contract that does not fix what the business practices of the studios and streamers have broken,” said WGA-West president Meredith Stiehm. “Years of eroding compensation and working conditions have left writers with fewer resources than ever to weather periods without work. Unemployment insurance for striking workers is a commonsense solution to keeping workers afloat and local economies healthy.”

Commonsense or not, the bill will face opposition from the state’s business interests: when CLF executive secretary-treasurer Lorena Gonzalez pressed for similar legislation in 2019 as an elected assemblyperson, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Farm Bureau lobbied against it, as did the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. Her bill passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate by two votes.

At the core of objections to such legislation is the idea that striking is voluntary, and thus a striker’s unemployment is a situation of her own making. Currently, workers must prove they are jobless through no fault of their own to receive benefits. Such logic is tilted: no matter what an employer does to provoke a strike, workers are treated as if they chose to forgo their income. But workers have already earned these benefits, and employers have paid into them; keeping the purse strings closed, knowing workers could go homeless as charities struggle to meet their needs, is as wrongheaded as it is callous.

Other arguments against the extension of benefits are also being trotted out. As Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce, told the Los Angeles Times, “This is going to hit employers, even those who have no involvement at all in any labor dispute and never have, but they’re still going to pay increased taxes.”

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, the labor organizations backing the bill noted that “The entertainment industry employers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have made it clear that they are willing to exploit workers’ financial precarity in order to break the strike.”

“We don’t want striking workers to not be able to make ends meet,” Gonzalez told Deadline of the renewed legislative push. “Up and down the state, we don’t want a group of workers — especially the massive number of workers we have out on strike right now — to be economically insecure because they’re being forced to go out on strike.”

The right to strike is an ostensibly fundamental distinction between free and unfree labor, but it isn’t genuine if people can’t realistically exercise it. Legislation like SB 799 is just a small measure to make that right a reality and reduce the built-in advantage employers have over workers during walkouts: namely, their ability to hold out longer with their deep coffers.

Still, given that Governor Newsom has done little to support the Hollywood strikes and is reticent to support proposals that require additional spending, it will take a concerted push to make the bill a reality.

Toward that end, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor president Yvonne Wheeler are joining WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikers outside of Amazon Studios in Culver City at a rally today in support of SB 799. The coalition’s slogan? “We earned it.”

A Countrywide Push

California isn’t the only state where workers are advocating unemployment benefits for strikers. A similar bill was introduced in Massachusetts in July, with a particular eye to the nurses’ strike at St Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, which began in 2021 and lasted for ten months.

Senator John Fetterman, too, has introduced legislation to give benefits to strikers. In light of his trip to the picket line at the Wabtec locomotive manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania and the still-ongoing walkout at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Fetterman, who is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research, recently introduced federal legislation to allow strikers to access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Currently, strikers can only receive SNAP benefits if they qualified for the program prior to going on strike — a rule that took effect in 1981, and the Supreme Court upheld in 1988. Fetterman’s Food Secure Strikers Act of 2023 would repeal the restriction for striking workers, as well as protect public sector workers who are fired in retaliation for striking from being categorized as having voluntarily quit and guarantee SNAP coverage for people in otherwise eligible households regardless of whether one of its members is on strike. The bill is cosponsored by thirteen other senators, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and has been endorsed by a range of labor organizations.

“Every union worker who is walking the picket line this summer needs to know that we have their back here in Washington,” Fetterman said in a statement upon introducing the bill in July.

In doing so, he explicitly tied the flurry of legislative efforts to the growing number of strikes: when workers walk out in the hundreds of thousands, as they are currently doing, it puts pressure on elected officials to address working-class needs. That is no guarantee that such legislation will overcome the opposition of our particularly powerful capitalist class, but it certainly won’t happen without worker activity on the scale we’re currently seeing.

Objections that extending benefits encourages strikes, or that falling behind on one’s bills and facing eviction is the cost of deciding to walk off the job, are arguments for an economy built upon heavily coerced labor. If the right to strike is fundamental, workers shouldn’t be excluded from social-welfare programs for exercising it.

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