There is nothing particularly novel about thinking to yourself, “You know, my job used to be pretty decent. Now, I’m working harder and the money is getting scarcer. What happened?” You might think this, in 2023, as a college professor or a cab driver or a journalist or a factory worker. This is America – our entire economy is built on making millions of jobs worse, in order to make a few people very rich.
What would be remarkable is if – when you realized that your once-good job was being made worse in order to satisfy the profit hunger of some faraway investment banker – you were able to actually do something about it. That, in our nation, would be news. That would be something for everyone to cheer for. The plain old workers standing up against enormous companies to stop the process that is turning their careers into execrable “gigs”. Is it a fairy tale? No, my friends. Welcome to the Great Writers Strike of 2023.
You may have noticed, if you turned on your TV last night, that the late night shows have suddenly stopped. That’s because, on Tuesday, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. The people who write all the TV shows and movies ain’t writing. So the new TV shows and movies ain’t gonna get made. Not until a fair contract with the AMPTP, a coalition of major studios, is reached. After weeks of intense negotiation, the two sides aren’t close. How far apart are they? The WGA’s total asks would come to $429m a year; the studios’ current offer stands at $86m a year. Lol.
What makes this strike notable is that the WGA is one of a relatively small number of unions in America that actually has power at an industrial scale. With few exceptions, if you are a working screenwriter, you are in the Writers Guild. (I am a WGA member, but we journalists are not technically on strike.) If studios want people to write their movies and shows, those people will be members of the union. Unlike in most industries, where union members make up a minority of the workers, in screenwriting, the work force is the union. Period. That sets up a balance of power between labor and capital that is rare in this country. Hollywood may be a louche mythology factory that idolizes materialist decadence, but from a labor organizing perspective, they’re a damn role model. Every part of Hollywood is unionized, and those unions make sure their workers get a fair share of the abundant proceeds of the entertainment industry. That’s why not just big film stars, but character actors and directors and electricians and writers can all make a decent living in TV and movies. Because their unions organized everyone, and demanded it. That is the only reason. And, for decades, the Hollywood studios and their financial backers have been trying to change that annoying fact.
Some screenwriters are rich. But the average screenwriter is, like many people, just trying to hang on to a solid middle-class job. Their industry has been upended by technological changes like streaming; the old, ad-centric revenue model is dying, and the writers are trying to win a contract that reflects the current reality of the business. They’re not looking for Shangri-La – their contract demands are fair pay and health care and a pension, while the companies are trying to take advantage of the changing industry to morph screenwriting into a more part-time, disposable, cheaper form of gig work. Bosses would like those of us with worse pay and benefits to be jealous of these screenwriters. In fact, they are champions of the idea that jobs should not suck. That if you are making a ton of money for your bosses, then you should be getting a fair piece yourself. That was once called “the American dream”. Now it’s called “unreasonable demands”. Either way, labor unions are the only remaining way to get it.
The WGA is also asking for contract language that ensures that AI is used only as a tool, and not as a full-on replacement for human writers. The fact that the studios haven’t agreed to that is a tell–a dark indication of corporate America’s barely concealed enthusiasm for the idea of maximizing the use of algorithms in their ongoing quest to push labor costs down to zero. There is virtually no chance that government regulators will move fast enough to get ahead of the rapid spread of AI in the workplace. Unions are the only institutions with the legitimate ability to build guardrails for the humans. In this sense, the contract that the writers are striking for could set a powerful precedent that AI must work for people, rather than being used to marginalize people in order to juice profits.
This strike matters for everyone. The story of the past half century of American society has been this: declining labor power, rising corporate power, rising inequality, collapsing democratic institutions. Reviving the power of working people, through organized labor, is the key to stopping our big national plummet to hell. A profitable, high-profile industry with enough union density to actually have a fair fight between workers and employers? That is an uncommon and precious thing. The Writers Guild has it. They are fighting to show that humans, who create stuff, cannot always and everywhere be steamrolled by the demands of spreadsheets and stock markets. Their win will be meaningful to you, and me, and everyone whose job seems to always be becoming more of a grind.
Think of an inspirational movie. Gladiator, for example. “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together,” Russell Crowe says to his fellow wretches in the arena. “If we stay together, we survive.”
Those words were written by a screenwriter. And they were speaking from experience.
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