With their 146-day strike this year, Hollywood film and TV writers made major gains in defending their livelihood against exploitative streaming models and the threat of AI. In an interview, two writers involved in the strike discuss the historic walkout.
Striking Writers Guild of America members picket with striking SAG-AFTRA members outside Paramount Studios on September 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)
On May 2 of this year, 11,500 Hollywood film and TV writers represented by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. Writers returned to work five months later on September 27, when the union announced a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP); WGA members officially ratified the deal on October 9, with 99 percent voting in favor. In addition to pay increases, the contract includes minimum staffing requirements for writers’ rooms and restrictions on studio uses of artificial intelligence (AI).
For the Jacobin Radio podcast, labor scholar Barry Eidlin interviewed two WGA writers about the historic strike and the contract wins: Howard A. Rodman, a former president of the Writers Guild of America West, and Alex O’Keefe, an organizer and screenwriter for FX’s The Bear. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel after five months on the picket line?
Howard A. Rodman
It was like being hit on the head with a glorious two-by-four. [After the strike ended,] I went to the Palladium for the gathering of the Writers Guild of America West. They presented the contract to the membership in this very large crowd. All of a sudden, the poignancy, the sense of joy, and the visible manifestation of solidarity that was present crept in, and I started to cry.
My entire life, and especially my career, was uprooted by this strike. It’s a sacrifice — a necessary sacrifice. And writers like me just got our foot in the door. That sacrifice hits us the hardest. I have $63 in my bank account; I didn’t know how I was going to keep going.
I almost didn’t believe the headlines until I got the agreement. We won for writers of every sector, and we won for rank-and-file writers like myself. I was a staff writer on The Bear. In our previous contract, staff writers were paid a weekly rate. If we were assigned to write an episode, we wouldn’t get the script fee that writers normally receive, but with our new contract, we will.
Now we’ll get a share in the success of our streaming shows. The guild will receive data of how many people are viewing our shows. That’s essential to determine the value of our labor.
A contract is only as powerful as your enforcement is. It’s up to all the members and the guild to enforce this contract’s gains.
The biggest thing that emerged during the strike is that we set a new standard on AI and automation. The strike will affect many coming labor battles, certainly in Hollywood — but also across America, and even around the world, because we ensured that AI is not going to replace screenwriters.
If we did not win, we would have been replaced in three years. The companies still might try to screw around with us — you can’t trust them. A contract is only as powerful as your enforcement is. It’s up to all the members and the guild to enforce this contract’s gains.
What were the issues that drove writers to strike in the first place?
Howard A. Rodman
The business model, from studios and networks to the streaming world, has broken. If it’s not fixed, writers will not have careers, only gigs. If it’s not fixed, the thread that was handed down to us from the previous generation — that says you can make a living as a writer — would snap. What we said was, “No, not on our watch. That’s not going to happen.”
For my generation, the contradictions of Hollywood were becoming too extreme. When you’re writing your sample script, when you’re trying to break into the guild, the mirage of Hollywood is a little bit far away. You think, if I could just get that dream job, I’d be secure, I won’t have to worry, I won’t have to take other jobs.
You know you have to hustle to make it, but you feel that once you make it, then at least you’ll have a good union job — you’ll be protected. I pursued Hollywood not to become some famous filmmaker, but because I’m from poverty, and I’m a writer. I thought this is the one place where I could apply my craft at a high level, raise a family, and have a middle-class life.
I got very lucky. My first professional gig was The Bear. I got hired because they were looking for a new voice and they didn’t think it was going to be a big show. If they had realized that, they probably would have hired a more experienced writer.
There’s a lot of new voices in Hollywood right now: people of color, women, people from the working class. We are seeing a boom. I always imagined watching TV, like any fan, that this creative boom was matched with a boom of valuing workers.
It wasn’t a ton of money to be a staff writer, but I thought, “This is it for me. I guess I’ve made it.” Once you actually work the job, you realize, no, it’s just another job — it’s just another gig. Even if you make something like The Bear, you don’t really get a fair share in the profits. What blew my mind was that none of the top showrunners and lead actors were getting their fair share in their streaming shows.
What blew my mind was that none of the top showrunners and lead actors were getting their fair share in their streaming shows.
I wrote for The Bear from my tiny Brooklyn apartment. It was a pandemic winter. They didn’t fly me out to the writers’ room, but I was lucky enough to get in the room and be on Zoom. I’d plug in my space heater, and it would knock out all the power. I worked on the last episode from a public library.
The nightmarish conditions radicalized us because we knew there was value in Hollywood. We no longer believed if you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, if you were innovative and hardworking, you’ll make it. We realized they’re not producing value by making great product but by downsizing.
What are some of the concrete contract provisions in this new tentative agreement? How do these compare to what the studios were initially trying to get you to accept?
Howard A. Rodman
When we started this strike on May 1, the studios were offering writers $86 million a year. The tentative agreement is two-and-a-half times as much, at $233 million. We got 5 percent, 4 percent, and 3.5 percent raises on minimums. Given that 50 percent of the guild works for minimums, that’s significant, and it’s cumulative.
We got more money for made-for-TV programs. Feature writers under certain conditions are guaranteed a two-step deal rather than a one-step deal.
What’s a two-step deal?
Howard A. Rodman
A screenwriter is paid for a draft. This made sense in an era when scripts were written in longhand and then somebody typed them up. For decades, this has not been a great metric for compensating screenwriting work, but when I started, you would get two- or three-step deals. This meant you did a draft, received notes from the producers and studios, and were paid for another draft. Sometimes that would be repeated a third time.
So you got the benefit of their input and the opportunity to be paid for two or possibly three drafts. Starting in 2010, they started switching to one-step deals. But the amount of work didn’t decrease. You got notes, and then they gave you more notes. So you would do as much work for a one-step deal but were paid about 40 percent less.
The initiation of a one-step deal guaranteed a wild exploitation of your time with mandated free work.
The initiation of a one-step deal guaranteed a wild exploitation of your time with mandated free work. [Winning guaranteed two-step deals] was essential. And it’s even more essential, because for a long-time screenwriters have feared this is a union of television writers — when push comes to shove, our needs would be sacrificed for the good of the television writers’ agenda. What happened was that there were gains for all sectors of the writing community: for screenwriters, for comedy variety writers, for staff writers.
What about residuals?
Howard A. Rodman
As a result of the 1960 strike — the last time when writers and actors were both on strike — we won residuals, meaning payment for reuse. It started when theatrical screenwriters found their movies were being shown on TV. It took a long and devastating strike for TV producers to agree.
Studios hate paying residuals. As one of the people on the other side, who shall remain anonymous, said, “I don’t pay my plumber every time I flush my toilet.”
While president of the guild, I was on maybe five negotiating committees. By the 2007–8 strike, we were able to establish jurisdiction over residuals. We were willing to take a cruddy residual formula just to get a foot in the door. Over the years it’s improved a little bit. But streaming residuals have fallen far, far behind the residuals in theatrical [movies] and in series [writing for network/cable TV].
If you’re a screenwriter and make a movie for theatrical distribution, you get one set of payments. But if that movie doesn’t get streamed, you get far less for its reuse. We wanted to remedy that, and we did, for programs with a budget of $30 million or more.
Studios hate paying residuals. As one of the people on the other side, who shall remain anonymous, said, ‘I don’t pay my plumber every time I flush my toilet.’
This covers most things on streaming video on demand. For video on demand, we got an 18 percent increase on initial compensation, with a 26 percent increase in the residual base. Over three years, this amounts to an average of $216,000 for screening projects.
Since the rise of streaming, there’s been a mini-room or development-room where you can write a whole season of TV, and it never even airs. The studios would have fewer writers doing more work over a shorter time period and for less pay.
Now, for the first time ever in the contract, there’s a minimum for how many writers constitute a writers’ room. That is going to be a generational shift in television writing.
Howard A. Rodman
I want to tell you why writers’ rooms are so important. My dad was a TV writer in a very different era. He wrote on shows like Naked City and Route 66. A season was thirty-nine episodes of hour-long dramas.
There were writers’ rooms for comedy, but not for drama. Drama writing in the early 1960s was done by one or two guys who sat in a room and wrote their own scripts or rewrote scripts that came in from a pool of freelance writers. They were responsible for thirty-nine hours of television a year. By comparison, thirty-nine hours is equivalent to the first three or four seasons of Succession.
Now, for the first time ever in the contract, there’s a minimum for how many writers constitute a writers’ room.
There was no hiatus because by the time you finished with a season, the next season was right there at your throats. And because there were no writers’ room, they had to stay up all night again and again.
My father worked through two minor heart attacks because there were no other shoulders to carry the load. There was only him and a guy named Stirling Silliphant. They had no alternative but to work through injuries.
My dad died of heart disease at age sixty-five. Had there been writers’ rooms in those days, he might have lived to see his three grandchildren. Having the regulation around staffing isn’t just something nice — it creates careers and also preserves the quality and sometimes the quantity of human life.
What does the contract say about artificial intelligence and how the contract is going to protect writers.
We saved our craft from the machines. It shows the degradation of our relationship with the executives and power brokers and CEOs that they stopped seeing what we do as an art and started seeing us as coders.
They wanted to erase all authorship. They wanted to be able to feed our scripts into generative AI to replace us. And if we allowed that to happen, then as I got older there would be no guild, no long-term vision.
I am impressed by the level of regulation we’ve won. This is new, so many other members of the labor and progressive movements have been looking to the Writers Guild and our research department to figure out how to regulate AI to save jobs in the long term.
Howard A. Rodman
The studios see what we do as content. When the Warner Bros. Discovery CEO speaks, he talks about his IPs [intellectual properties]. Their larger aim is not unlike the way William Burroughs described the economics of the heroin trade: don’t improve the product, degrade the buyer.
What we won was not an easy win — it was among the very last things talked about in the last two days of negotiation. The writer is not splitting credit with a machine. They can’t give you some machine-written thing and then say, “You’re the rewriter on that.”
The writer is not splitting credit with a machine. They can’t give you some machine-written thing and then say, ‘You’re the rewriter on that.’
Instead, under the MBA [Minimum Basic Agreement, i.e., the contract], writers can elect to use AI when performing writing services. But the company cannot require you to use software. If any material given to you has been generated by AI or incorporates any AI-generated material, they must tell you.
Most important, our job is not to train AI. In other words, don’t scrape our scripts to have a machine create shittier versions of our scripts.
When talks broke off on May 1, studios were only offering to meet with us once a year to chat about technology. That was as far as they would go on AI.
When I look at the provisions that we have, they’re not perfect. But there are the most essential guardrails around the kind of abuse they were gleefully contemplating when they offered us a once-a-year sit and chat.
Beyond the contract language, what are the broader gains you see coming from the strike?
Howard A. Rodman
I was in correspondence with somebody who said, “Let’s take the lesson of this strike and just say: no more free rides. If somebody asks me to do a free pass on a screenplay, I’m not going to do it.” It was a kind of “I am Spartacus” moment when we realized that when we hold together, we win. When we hold the line, [management has to] step back.
We are newly emboldened by what we learned about the power of the community of writers in this strike. We can build upon that not just in terms of what’s in the contract language, but in terms of our daily work lives. “No, I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more. No, I’m not going to do that work for free. No, that’s not what writers do. It’s your job to pay us for that.” There’s going to be an expansion of that attitude in our daily lives as writers.
The strike is about money. It’s about surviving, but it’s also about respect. These CEOs are not our friends. They would like to destroy us. The only reason they didn’t is because we banded together in solidarity across race and class and gender and ideology.
We have a new level of self-respect. We’re not going to accept loopholes and degrading working conditions. There’s a Hollywood labor movement now: you hear Lindsay Dougherty of the Teamsters and the firebrands — people like me, who was just some guy. There are dozens of strike captains who held the line and are now involved in the guild.
There’s new organizing across Hollywood. The Marvel workers have unionized. I just spoke with production assistants planning to unionize. There is nothing that empowers and raises consciousness like winning and winning big.
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)
I was able to make it out to the picket line several times. I was struck by the high levels of participation and energy I saw on the picket lines, even months into the strike.
As a labor scholar, I find as strikes stretch out, they often settle into a kind of routine. The energy level drops; it becomes just a few people around a fire barrel. That was not the case when it came to this strike. Why was that?
You have to credit the strike captains — dozens of strike captains, many young, who kept people motivated and informed. They knew the issues.
One amazing innovation was themed pickets that made it a party. There was a Beyoncé picket, there were reunion pickets of The Simpsons. So the picket wasn’t just a walk around or a place to talk about our grievances. It was, “Let’s celebrate who we are.” We’re writers. We’re storytellers. We’re the culture makers. The picket was a site of catharsis and celebration.
Howard A. Rodman
When the AMPTP made the callous decision to spend a hundred days away from the negotiating table in hopes that we would soften, it was willing to cause pain and suffering and devastation for tens of thousands of human beings.
We knew it and we felt it. If part of the reason we went back to picket was because it was a lot of fun, another part was that we were not about to let them cause all that pain, suffering, and misery to us, to our communities. We were going to show them that for every day we were on the picket line, as the slogan says, we were able to go one day longer.
Why do you think the studios decided to settle? What made them come back to the table and agree to a deal?
Howard A. Rodman
The fact that we weren’t going to stop, and they knew it.
Over the last month of the strike there was a concerted campaign among some elites in Hollywood to break our will. I heard whisper campaigns about myself. There were agents in people’s ears saying, “Hey, get back to work.”
People like Drew Barrymore fell for it, and she tried to bring back her show. Bill Maher tried to bring back his show too. We picketed the hell out of those shows, and we shut them down.
I don’t know what happened in the negotiating room, but I saw that the attempt to break the union just emboldened people.
I don’t know what happened in the negotiating room, but I saw that the attempt to break the union just emboldened people. We showed that the more you try to push us, the harder we push back.
Eventually, they had to admit that, because at the end of the day, they need money. They can try to say, “We’re saving so much money because we’re not producing anything.” That doesn’t mean much to shareholders. Ultimately, like any other business, you need to keep producing.
Strike participants and observers have pointed out the degree of cross-union solidarity that we saw in this strike. That didn’t necessarily exist in the past. What’s changed?
Howard A. Rodman
I think some of it is the larger climate internationally and nationally. If you look at the polling, the idea of labor unions is more popular in the United States than it has been at any time since the New Deal.
We all did our homework. We reached out to each other. And when we moved, it wasn’t just, “Please come and support us.” From the beginning, we worked in concert with the other unions in town: other entertainment-industry unions for sure, but we worked with unions outside the entertainment industry as well — janitors, hotel workers.
During the 2007–8 strike, it was said that “it’s millionaires fighting billionaires.” The narrative was all about how those selfish writers are putting the caterers and dry cleaners in this town out of work. Now, everybody who has had a greedy corporate boss understands that if we didn’t win, we’d be the people left selling citrus fruits by the bottom of a freeway ramp with a sign that says, “Will work for Disney.”
You don’t have to tell somebody at McDonalds that corporations make money off of their sweat and labor. Their bosses are not very different than ours. In some cases, they’re the same goddamn bosses.
I don’t think we would have won this, especially on the scale that we’ve won, without the Teamsters and IATSE [the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees] standing by us, instead of criticizing us for causing them to lose work. We’ve gotten so much support from makeup artists and truck drivers and directors.
The Writers Guild is no stranger to strikes — it has struck roughly every ten years for the past several decades. How was this strike different?
Howard A. Rodman
Going back to 2004 we had a union that was a union of progressives to some extent, but it was not a progressive union. We had an executive director who came out of labor-management on management’s side. He never saw himself on our side. He saw what we wanted to do as having inmates run the asylum.
I was on the 2004 negotiating committee. Again and again, he would say, ”I can’t ask for that. I would be laughed out of the room.” Or he would say, “They’ve decided how much they’re going to pay us. Our job is to decide how to divvy it up.”
We thought differently. We thought the job of the executive director of the Writers Guild of America West was to work with us to develop the leverage to get the things we needed. We organized, had an election, won a majority of the seats on the board, and fired our executive director. We brought in someone who came out of organizing.
We organized, had an election, won a majority of the seats on the board, and fired our executive director. We brought in someone who came out of organizing.
We took a union of largely progressive people and tried to transform it through organizing the membership. For upcoming negotiations, we didn’t just announce what we, the leadership, had decided was needed. Going into the 2017 negotiation, we had thirty, forty, maybe fifty individual meetings: meetings with showrunners, meetings with staff writers, meeting with screenwriters, meeting with people who had barely gotten a toehold in the industry, meetings by zip code.
When we formulated a list of demands, they came out of our listening to the members. As we started pushing for some pretty extreme things, we had the force of a membership who felt these were our demands. They were willing to fight for them.
This 2023 strike came out of a decade or more of union organizing. But for a long time, various sectors of the guild thought the pattern of demands was tilted toward the wealthiest showrunners. The thinking went that if they get what they wanted, something might trickle down to the rest of us.
In this negotiation, we said, “Nobody gets left behind.” Unless there’s something for comedy variety writers, daytime writers, writers of theatrical features, writing teams, and staff writers, then all of us will keep picketing.
At first, some members didn’t quite believe it — who would be thrown under the bus at the end of the day? Certainly, the bosses didn’t believe it, because they’ve never seen that from us before. They’d always thought, “Ok, we’ll give them this, and then we don’t have to give them anything else.” This time they did have to come up with everything.
We just kept walking the line. The enthusiasm of the line on the last day of the strike was no less than on the very first day. At a certain point, Wall Street told the studios to shut up and make a deal, or maybe the studios were able to iron out their differences. They do have very different business models — so what’s good for Sony is bad for Netflix.
For whatever reasons, they were able to give us what we needed. Do we need to build on it? Absolutely. Do other unions need to take the ball we’re going to hand them and run with it? Yep. Will they do that with our fullest support? Yep. This strike feels like the beginning of a story and not the end of one.
This interview is being copublished with Against the Current.Original post