Blog, Social Justice

Why the WGA Writers Strike is a Feminist Issue

photo of manicured hands on laptop keyboard above illustration of solidarity fists and picket signs

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As of this week, Hollywood screenwriters are on strike. This comes after the Writers Guild of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to reach a deal in their contract negotiations, which take place every three years. This is no small hiccup for writers, who have been facing an increasingly difficult and exploitative economic landscape in Hollywood. A few weeks ago, a whopping 97.85% of WGA members voted in favor of the strike if no deal was reached. The WGA stated at that time: “These results set a new record for both participation and the percentage of support in a strike authorization vote.”

When the deadline to reach a negotiation agreement passed on May 1, the strike went into effect. It’s the first time WGA writers have gone on strike in 15 years. “Though our Negotiating Committee began this process intent on making a fair deal,” Union leadership stated, “the studios’ responses to our proposals have been wholly insufficient, given the existential crisis writers are facing.”

Jeane Wong, co-chair of the WGA’s Committee of Women Writers (Andra Whipple is also co-chair and Franki Butler is Vice Chair), was gracious enough to answer a few questions for this post during the first 48 hours of the strike. She put it this way: “The strike was definitely a forced action by the studios. … The WGA is always doing everything they can to negotiate and get back to the table because they know how impactful and horrible a strike is on everyone in Hollywood, not only writers, but crew, execs, local businesses near studios, etc.”

So, wait, “existential crisis”? “Forced action”? What’s going on? And why does this matter? Isn’t everyone in Hollywood rich? (Spoiler alert: no!)

What is the WGA and what is AMPTP?

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the labor union consisting of thousands of writers for film, TV, documentaries, video games and more. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) is the trade association that represents over 350 American television and film production companies in collective bargaining negotiations such as this one. In addition to negotiating with the WGA, AMPTP also negotiates with other entertainment industry unions including SAG-AFTRA (which represents actors and other entertainment professionals), the Directors Guild of America, and more.

More specifically, WGA is negotiating with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC Universal, Paramount, and Sony—all under the AMPTP umbrella.

What do WGA writers want?

Essentially, writers want and deserve a contract that compensates them fairly for what they contribute to the entertainment industry. (Because everything we watch starts with a script! Even reality TV!) Unfortunately, fairness is not currently the case. As AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler explained it: “Producers make billions in profits off the words that bring the magic of film and television to life for audiences in the United States and around the world. It’s deeply disappointing that [AMPTP] isn’t bargaining in good faith to deliver a fair contract.”

Basically, streaming has boomed (compared to 15 years ago, “Netflix and chill” is now our whole way of life, right?) and writers’ pay has not matched the pace of the change. Many WGA writers are working at minimum pay levels and need to find several jobs a year to support themselves, which didn’t used to be the case. Many writers are also frustrated by low streaming residuals (residuals, or royalties from the re-airing of episodes, can be a big part of a writer’s income, and they were much higher when writers wrote for broadcast networks) and there are big concerns about the lack of regulations around the use and potential threat of AI.

As Wong explained to me, “When you look up a writer salary [for streaming], it seems high, but that money has to stretch for a long time.” She clarified that writers aren’t expecting steady work in Hollywood, which “would be outlandish and unreasonable in a creative profession. What [writers] are asking for is a living wage when there are good years and those good years pay for bad years. … But right now, EVERY YEAR IS BAD.”

Feminist Issues in Hollywood

If you’re reading this blog in the first place, it probably isn’t news to you that equity in Hollywood still has a long way to go. Per the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 13% of film and television writers are female: “With such a dearth of female representation in front of and behind the camera, it’s a struggle to champion female stories and voices.” This is a pretty major problem, since our cultural attitudes and behaviors are majorly influenced by the media we take in.

As for the women who are working in Hollywood, Wong explained: “The studios have been profitable every year, but writer wages have gone down every year. And the pay for women and especially women of color are still the lowest. … On top of that, making writing a sustainable career is paramount for women, who still face sexism and ageism the most as mothers and are still forced out of the workplace.”

There also tends to be an assumption outside of the industry that if you’re a Hollywood writer, you must be living a glamorous lifestyle. As The Bear writer Alex O’Keefe recently shared, this is far from the norm for working screenwriters. “It’s a very regular-degular, working-class existence.”

If we want the stories on our screens to include better representation and diversity that both reflects and affects the real world, it’s crucial that the young writers Alex O’Keefe is tweeting about are indeed nurtured, protected, and respected.

Unions are historically a good thing for feminism, so supporting WGA writers during this tumultuous time is a good idea for those fighting for a more feminist future—whether you work in entertainment or enjoy it from your couch.

How to Support the Strike

Only a couple days into its strike, the WGA has received messages of solidarity from a wide variety of other organizations, including everything from the International Cinematographers Guild to the New York City musicians’ union.

If you want to show your own solidarity, you can check out the WGA’s social media toolkit and add your voice to the chorus. Some people have also proposed canceling streaming services and voicing support for writers in the cancellation form:

Wong hesitates to tell people to give up entertainment, but also acknowledges this would “help tremendously.” She summarized the WGA fight as “a fight against peak exploitation and overwhelming corporate greed.” To support the WGA, she recommends following @WGAWest and @WGAEast on Twitter and promoting their posts.

And once the strike is over? “It takes a village,” Wong says about how to move Hollywood toward being a genuinely inclusive and equitable place. But the WGA proposals are a great start, and the WGA guild committees will resume after the strike. “The Committee of Women Writers will focus on promoting work opportunities for womxn and community for womxn.”

Lillie Gardner is a writer of prose and screenplays in St. Paul, Minnesota. She loves literary fiction and memoir—both to read and to write—and is particularly excited about quirky Midwestern stories and women's history. When she's not writing or reading, she's usually teaching piano, taking her cat Ava Gardner for a stroll or chasing after the newest vegan eats in the Twin Cities.

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