Sasha Stewart: My name is Sasha Stewart. I’m a Writer’s Guild East council member, and I’m also a TV writer who’s written for comedy variety series, for documentary series, and for scripted comedy.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times Magazine and the Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
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So as y’all heard, we’ve got Sasha on the line today, and I am so, so grateful to her because this has been a hell of a week for Sasha and her coworkers, I’m sure, unless you’ve been living under a rock, but if you listen to this show, you no doubt have heard about the Writer’s Guild strike. This is a really important, and dare I say, historic moment for the Writer’s Guild and for Hollywood as such.
Maximillian Alvarez: We’re at a really, really critical sort of point here of deciding if we’re going to keep going down this sort of streaming route, all the kinds of changes that really got supercharged, turbocharged with Covid-19, what is that going to mean for workers in the industry, the creatives, all the people in the who make these productions that we all love and consume on a daily basis, what is going to happen to them? And so that’s really like what we’re going to talk about here.
And just to sort of center us before I toss things over to Sasha, to sort of give us an update on where things stand right now with the strike and what led us to this point, and of course what we can all do to stand in solidarity with the WGA, I want to read to a couple passages from a great piece by Josh Gondelman that was published in The Nation earlier this week. We’re going to link to this in the show notes, but the title is, Writers Like Me Have Shut Down Hollywood. Here’s Why.
So Josh writes in this piece, quote, “As someone who hates conflict but loves fairness, I felt a twinge of anxiety in joining the picket line. I don’t think I was the only one. In fact, if it were up to the writers, we wouldn’t have had to strike at all. When the WGA began its negotiations with the Alliance of Motion picture and television producers, the AMPTP, the group representing Hollywood studios, the goal was a fair contract that would help writers maintain sustainable careers. Taken together, the measures we asked for amounted to roughly 2% of the profits made by the studios and the increasingly consolidated corporations behind them from the work we do. Given the fact that those profits would literally not be possible without our writing, this didn’t seem like a lot to ask for, but the AMPTP never got close to offering that kind of an agreement, offering only about 20% of what we asked and refusing to engage with several of our core proposals. So with an overwhelming 97.85% approval by voting members, we decided to strike.”
“The conditions that caused this strike, the first by the WGA since the 2007–2008 walkout, have been percolating for years. While overall production budgets have risen sharply, writer pay has declined by 4% over the past decade, 23% when adjusted for inflation. The shift of film and television to streaming has meant lower residuals, i.e., the money writers get paid when their shows are re-aired and shorter seasons. The proliferation of so-called mini rooms where small writing staff often work on a show before it is greenlighted has many writers taking short-term jobs for less than their established rate. Nearly 50% of writers are working for the minimum salary compared to 33% 10 years ago. To paraphrase Chris Rock, the studios would love to pay us even less, but they’re not legally allowed to. And people of color, women and members of the LGBTQIA community are impacted the most. What makes this so frustrating is that the money for what we are asking is readily available.”
“Implementing the WGA proposals would net total yearly gains of 429 million for 20,000 writers. Netflix, Paramount, Comcast, Disney, Fox, and Warner Brothers reported a total of 28 to 30 billion in operating profit each year from 2017 to 2021. In 2022 alone, eight Hollywood CEOs pocketed 773 million between them.”
Maximillian Alvarez: All right, Sasha, so I wanted to read some of that just so you didn’t have to give us the full breakdown of how much money these guys are making off of you all. But I wanted to just sort of toss things over to you and ask if A, we can start by just getting to know a little more about you and your kind of path into the industry as a writer. And tell us about from your experience and the folks that you know were working alongside and in WGA East or in West, what have y’all been going through over these past couple years or even this past decade? What are the sort of crucial changes that folks who are listening to this should really be paying attention to, and what led to this strike? Can we build on that piece by Josh and talk a bit more from your experience; what this strike that folks are now hearing about, where it all started?
Sasha Stewart: That was a great eight questions. I’m going to try to get to them all, but if I miss one, please just repeat it and I’m happy to address it. So I’ll start with my background. I initially started off in the industry as a production assistant and worked my way up to becoming a writer. I started at the Colbert Report and moved over to write for the wonderful, the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, which is a great show that was, as I always like to say, too beautiful to live, canceled too soon.
And it’s interesting, my career from there, I started working on a really wonderful, amazing documentary series called Amend, the Fight for America, which is available on Netflix. So I went from Comedy Central, which is a cable network to Netflix, which is a streaming network. I worked on Amend for about three years, and then more recently I just wrapped in a scripted room on a new limited series for FX.
And so the interesting thing is that my career has let me see a lot of these changes firsthand. I, at the Colbert Report, would see my colleagues who are writers earn a very steady living, a great paycheck. They were paid 52 weeks out of the year. They have wonderful health insurance, they have all these great protections, and they’re able to all make a living here in New York City, which is incredible. And when I got hired at the Nightly Show, I was very excited to have the same thing. And for a couple years I did and it was fabulous. And then when the show was canceled, I realized that, oh, actually, most writers have a lot of time in between their jobs and they aren’t so lucky to work on the same show for 10 or 15 years. They actually work on a show for, at the time, it was like five or six years, and then may have a gap in employment, and then they get hired on their next show.
And what I’ve seen over the course of, I joined the union in 2014, so in the almost 10 years I’ve been in the union is, I’ve been seeing the period of employment for writers going down and the increase of unemployment, that sort of gap between employment, go up. So instead of a writer working for 52 weeks out of the year or working for 40 weeks out of the year, we’re seeing writers working for 20 weeks out of the year, 20 weeks if they’re lucky. We’re also seeing them work for 12 weeks out of the year, 10 weeks out of the year. We’re seeing them not work for a long enough period of time to gain their health insurance or to keep their health insurance.
And the number for what a writer has to make in order to, what we say, get their year, make their year in order to get health insurance is not some sort of pie in the sky number. It’s a little bit over $40,000. So that’s an average middle class amount of money to make per year. And that’s what we’re trying to make sure that writers make at least that amount of money so they can keep their health insurance.
And what has been happening is that, as Josh said, it’s not that these shows, their budgets have gone down as the season orders have gone down, the budgets have gone up as the season orders have gone down. So clearly they’re investing a lot more in each episode and they’re expecting really incredible writing for each episode. And yet they’re asking writers to write those incredible episodes in shorter and shorter and shorter periods of time.
Another aspect that is harming writers is that they’re asking writers to do all of this work, create these brilliant shows in a short period of time in a room, and then they’re not allowing those writers to go to set to produce their episodes to produce the TV series. And that’s really harmful too, not only because again, it adds up to less work.
If you’re only employed for the, let’s say, 12 weeks out of this room and then you’re not employed for the, let’s say, 20 weeks that it takes to shoot the show, then that’s a huge gap in employment. You’re also waiting for the show to come out before anybody knows about it. And so you’re trying to get a job while promising people, I worked on this really cool show, it’s going to come out. You’re going to love it. Please hire me for your next show, for another show, please. And you have these big long gaps in your IMDB and you’re like, “I was working, but it didn’t come out.” Or the show may never come out because there might be such a big long gap between the writing and the production that you have six different executives at the studio, and then by the time the last executive goes there, they’re like, “What are these scripts? What is this? No, no, no, I’m into robots now. I’m not into Frankenstein.” So Frankenstein’s out, robots are in, and then suddenly all that work is for effectively nothing.
Maximillian Alvarez: The other thing that jumped out to me that just seems so cruel, and not to get to Karl Marx here, but when our boy Karl is talking about alienating people from their labor, it’s that. It’s like you’re a writer, you’re crafting this show through and through in the writing room, and then you were literally separated from that labor and it’s made somewhere that you’re not allowed to be. So that in itself also seems like a really creatively cruel part of this system.
Sasha Stewart: That is absolutely correct. And what that also includes is that you’re not learning the skills. Writers are writer producers. We don’t just write. We write and we produce. That’s how television is created. Specifically, this is TV writers and writers for scripted television and for comedy variety, any sort of what we call appendix A as well, which is daytime soaps, et cetera. We all produce what we write, and we are expected as we sort of climb the ladder in our careers to become better producers as well as better writers. And so like you said, if we’re alienated from the work of actually producing the series, that means that we’re not even being trained to do the job that we are inevitably going to do. And so that is also going to lead to deterioration in the quality of shows. Because if you don’t train your workforce, they can’t do the work, and you’re also not paying them very well for that work.
So one of the other reasons why you’re seeing so many writers working for minimum, which it’s not supposed to be how it is, it’s supposed to be that the more experienced you are, the more money you make. But we have producers saying, “Well, you’ve never been on set. How can I possibly pay you a producing rate if you haven’t been on set?” And it’s like, “Well, that’s not my fault. I haven’t been on set. You haven’t let me go to set. You haven’t paid for me to be on set. What am I supposed to do?” And so it does feel like the companies are pushing us towards this model of, “Hey, come in, punch up a script written by an AI, and then punch out the clock at the end of the day and then you’ll never see whatever it was again. And what you’re going to be putting in as a human being is of course going to be the heart and soul and honestly logic of a script, and we’re not even going to let you do anything with it.”
Maximillian Alvarez: I’m trying to contain my rage here, but I wanted to kind of follow up on that point really quick because this is something that a number of folks have asked us about, and we’ve seen a number of posts about it. And we know that like other industries, the threat of automation is always kind of held over our heads as a bludgeon to discipline us back into subservience, discipline us into accepting less than we know that we’re worth, so on and so forth. The specter of automation is always there, and I think it kind of caught people a little bit by surprise to sort of hear that in creative industries.
But I think over the past year, just the more folks have gotten exposed to some AI technology, whether it’s the AI generated images or the chat functions, they’re starting to see it and feel it. And so now when they hear, “Oh, we’re going to AI the shit out of all this Hollywood script writing and just use the human beings to come and punch stuff up,” how credible is that threat? Or I guess when you guys hear that, what do you hear and how might that necessarily be different from what the rest of us outside of the industry are hearing?
Sasha Stewart: I believe your listeners are probably hearing a lot of actually really good information when it comes to if they’ve experienced Chat GPT, if they’ve tried it out, they’re sort of seeing that it doesn’t really work. It doesn’t quite do everything exactly right, but you see that the learning curve is very steep. It’s going up very quickly.
And what we see also as a threat is that because we are coming from a creative industry, because so much of what we do is built on the human soul, what we are worried about is that the quality of the work will go down; we obviously are workers and we want to make sure that we keep working, but also, we understand that the quality of the work will go down. We understand that quite frankly, these AI, they’re not allowed to legally use our scripts, our scripted material, which is copyrighted. Therefore, what are they going to be basing these scripts off of is a really great question. And how could it possibly equate to true human empathy, true human experience?
We as writers base so much of our work off of our personal experience, I’m sure you’ve seen there’s a bunch of very funny, delightful placards that are talking about picket signs about Chat GPT doesn’t have my childhood trauma. AI doesn’t have a therapist. We really put our heart and souls into these scripts and into the work that we do, and that cannot be replaced by AI because unfortunately, or fortunately, I guess, I don’t know, it’s not a person. It isn’t capable of feeling human emotion.
And so personally, I feel like that’s a threat. I also feel like it’s a threat to the robust diversity of stories that we are starting to get in this industry that we have been seeing in the last decade or so, this actual growth towards hiring people of color, hiring women, hiring queer people. Josh mentioned that in his article. And this is a huge threat to them because if we turn this career into a gig, into a hobby, the people who are going to be able to do it are the people who have generational wealth and privilege and are just doing this for fun, doing it because they can literally afford to, as opposed to people who are building a middle class career off of it.
And therefore the stories are going to turn whiter. They’re going to turn straighter, they’re going to turn more male, they’re going to turn more privileged. Just at the time when we finally were getting unique, interesting, wonderful stories from people who had never been heard from before. And who truly cannot be replicated by AI because, what’s the AI basing the stories off? Westerns from the fifties, and their horribly biased points of view? So I think that is a real threat in addition to the very credible threat that these companies will try to replace us with this.
And we know that this is a credible threat because they specifically told us that. They said in the negotiations, when we said, quite simply, “Wwe’re not banning AI. We just want to regulate it such that a human being is a person who writes a script, such that AI can’t be considered literary material, which is basically how we say writing a script, that it can’t be considered source material.” That’s what we’re asking for. And instead of the company saying, “Okay, that makes sense, thank you for not outright banning this,” they came back to us and they said, “Well, we don’t want to take off the table a technology that may be of advantage to us later.” And if that’s not playing their hand right there, I don’t know what is.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, fuck that man. And because they’ve done that with voices, right?
Sasha Stewart: Yeah.
Maximillian Alvarez: I mean, I guess if folks who are listening to this or wondering if we have some sort of precedent we can look at, I’ll link to some pieces on that where people have signed away their voice rights in perpetuity for all of time, if and when a technology becomes available that enables a company, a studio to reproduce a person’s voice even after they have died using those new technologies.
And so I want to just say something about that for a second because I know I can’t keep you too long, and I promise I’m going to let you go in a second. But I want to finish off by talking about what the week on the picket line has been like, and what folks can do to show support.
But I guess just really quick before we get there, the thing that really strikes me about that is because I talk to workers from all different kinds of industries on this show and for the Real News Network, it’s striking to me how similar the kind of concerns are and what you’re describing to me, there are so many echoes in other industries in what workers are going through, but also what customers for those industries are going through. And that’s I think where we have some potential here for broad-based solidarity.
Because in the past, normally the paradigm was like, we’re going to discipline our workforce, we’re going to get our workers to concede as much as we can to take as low pay as we can, yada, yada, yada, but to basically get the product out that we know our customers want. So if we need to subcontract that out, if we need to move production overseas, we’ll do it as long as the customers are happy. What feels different in the year of our Lord 2023 is that they don’t give a shit about us either.
Sasha Stewart: That’s true.
Maximillian Alvarez: They’re just like, we’re going to give you these assholes whatever slop we can come up with, and we’re just going to shove it into the backs of their throats like they’re caged chickens with that feeding pipe coming down their throat. Because if we can corner the market, if we can dominate content production and create essentially not a monopoly monopsony sort of system, then where else are people going to go for studio level productions, no matter how shitty they are?
And I feel more consumers are seeing that where it’s like, “Well, the shows that I get invested in get canceled after one fucking season.” And we got Reservoir Dogs for two seasons, and now we’re talking about just scrapping all that and going to some crappy AI like the weird kids channels on YouTube that your nieces and nephews watch. It shows both contempt for workers and the customers who they’re purportedly there to entertain, to serve, to provide for so on and so forth.
And that is something that dear listeners, you guys have heard, like, take the railroads, we talked to Railroaders left and right over the past year and a half. It’s not just the workers who are getting run into the ground, the shippers, the customers are pissed off because they’re getting screwed over by the same companies who are making the service across the freight system worse while making more profits than they ever have for themselves and their Wall Street shareholders. Everyone knows. We’ve talked to Chipotle workers, they’re being run into the ground. Customers are pissed off because every time they come in, there’s two people working there, half the menu isn’t available. Chipotle doesn’t care.
That’s the thing. If you can corner these markets, if you can figure out and jerry-rig ways to sort of squeeze profit out of a business, but you lose sight of what the business is actually supposedly there to do and it just becomes a sort of like ATM for a bunch of greedy fuck heads, then this is what you get. You get degrading service, you get degrading quality of life for the people working there, yada, yada yada, ya. That’s me speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for anyone else, just editorializing.
Sasha Stewart: I do want to speak to our audience, which is like everybody who watches television and movies and lovely late night shows. I want to speak to our audience really quickly, because I do believe that you are correct that our audience has been feeling the pain of this as well, just in a slightly different way than we have, although I think actually emotionally very similar, which is that we writers emotionally invest in everything that we write. I know I’ve said it a few times, we put our heart and soul into it, and I really do mean that we put that into every single thing, every single word of what we write, and we are trying to convey to the audience a message, whatever it is, even if it’s something as profound as Reservation Dogs on FX, a brilliant series, or something that’s just funny that we know the audience is going to laugh and they’re just going to have a good time because they’ve had a hard day because we understand that too.
And what we were seeing is that beloved shows are being ripped from streaming platforms that people have paid for because of these wonderful shows. They’re being ripped from these platforms in order to save a few tax dollars, as a tax write off. Shows that have been green lit that audiences would love are being produced and then never aired as a tax write off. We’re seeing beloved series that you invest in characters, they have huge cliffhangers at the end of a season, and they don’t get more than one or two seasons, and the storytellers don’t get the opportunity to finish telling the story.
And we’re actually seeing viewers starting to avoid new series because they’re so concerned that they’re going to get canceled and instead are only investing and watching series that have already ended and that they know that the ending had a good conclusion so they aren’t heartbroken. And we don’t want that for our audience. That’s not how you build a sustainable industry.
And honestly, if the studios come back to the table and if they say, “We want to make this deal. We accept the proposals that you have put out,” we will make this industry sustainable again, because that we understand as writer producers, we know how to make great content, great entertainment, beloved TV shows that people will watch over and over and over again. We know how to build audiences, we know how to be great storytellers and to make this industry last for the decades and decades that it already has lasted for.
And unfortunately, a lot of the people at the top now, instead of seeing this as we need to exist for the next 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, instead, they’re seeing this, we need to increase profits for the next quarter. We need to increase profits for the next quarter. What’s the easiest way to do that? Just cut down on manpower and person power. Let’s just give a lot of people a lot of pain in order for us and our shareholders to get wealthier in the short term. But quite frankly, not in the long term.
And this is a thing I wanted to mention is that, and I am pretty sure your listeners are going to agree with me, investing in workers always makes for a more successful company. If you invest in workers, they will deliver. And it does not matter what industry that is. I think we all can agree that that is the case. Workers will always deliver the goods if you invest in them, if you give them a livable wage, if you give them good healthcare, if you give them a pension, if you give them the ability to thrive, they will deliver the goods time and time again.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s beautifully put. And it just takes me back to a warehouse that I worked at in southern California as a temp worker. And I remember I was very depressed at this point, this was after in the wake of the recession, and this warehouse was very exploitive. It was a hot box in Southern California, kind of off the freeway, and it supplied 80% of its day-to-day labor force in the warehouse, not the front office, but in the warehouse with temps.
And I got into a yelling match with the vice president of the company who was like, “You guys aren’t being efficient enough.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” Because what he meant is you’re not going fast enough. And what I was yelling about, I was like, “We’re not going fast enough because you keep bringing in new temps, not hiring them. And then when they make mistakes, and so then we got to try to figure that out. You’re not giving people the proper training. You’re working people to the bone, working us 12, 13, 14 hours and then you’re firing half the people at the end of the day. So everyone’s terrified of making a mistake.”
But it was like we were looking past each other and I was kind of trying to make the argument were, I was like, “If you just treat people better, we’ll do a better fucking job.”
Sasha Stewart: Exactly.
Maximillian Alvarez: But in your mind, we are worth so little and our lives are worth so little. And as people, you see us as such vermin, such raw labor power. We’re just bodies that can perform a task. We’re not human beings who maybe will be incentivized to perform better if we know we’re going to have a job tomorrow or if we’re getting paid enough to support ourselves and our family, or I don’t know if there’s fucking air conditioning in this place.
All that stuff, it just didn’t even enter his mind. It was just like, what can I do to push people into this sort of meat grinder and extract the maximum amount, regardless of how many mistakes are made or people lose their jobs within any given week. And that is a death spiral. Like you said, that’s a death spiral for any industry.
And if we’re talking about the creative industry, where do we go from there if we lose the soul of that industry? And you guys listening, you’ve heard the other episodes we’ve done in the past with folks from IATSE when they were prepared to go on strike. A lot of the same issues that we’re talking about here, especially when it comes to the gig work.
Sasha Stewart: Absolutely.
Maximillian Alvarez: The sort of project by project nature of the job and the kind of extended time between those projects that people are dealing with. Even many IATSE members are struggling to keep their heads above water because of many of the same issues, if not all of the same issues that Sasha’s talking about. We talk to folks at the Real News Network from the Animation Guild who have been fighting for a new deal for animation as they’ve been calling it, describing a lot of the same things. They love the work that they do, they’ve given their lives to doing this, and they’re getting treated like crap by the same companies and studios that are making mad bank off of them and they’re labor.
So this is something that we all need to be invested in, and we all need to be doing everything we can to support workers like Sasha and others throughout the creative industry because apparently Hollywood isn’t getting the message. Just to sort of drill home like something Sasha said, I’m going to read again from that great Nation piece by Josh Gondelman.
In light of everything we’re talking about here, here’s what Josh says: “The proposals the AMPTP put forth revealed deeply regressive priorities,” instead of addressing these other things, that’s me talking back to Josh, “Stripping away protections for long-term employment and attempting to create a single day rate for comedy and variety writers, refusing to grant a fair share of profits for streaming content, and allowing writers’ rooms to continue shrinking thanks to contracting writing budgets and the specter of AI driven scripting. At every opportunity, the studios are prioritizing shareholder greed and trying to turn writing into an unstable gig economy profession.”
And so that’s why this is such a crucial struggle, not just for Sasha and her coworkers and WGA East and West, but for all of us who rely on, depend on, and love the work that they do. And so in that vein, Sasha, A, I wanted to thank you for giving me so much of your time after a week on the picket line when things are nuts over there. B, I wanted to just sort of round out by asking if you’d say a little bit about what the past week on the picket line has been like, support you’re getting from folks or any movement we’re seeing from the studios and what folks out there can do to support you and your coworkers.
Sasha Stewart: I would say that everything that you just talked about leads really well into what’s been going on this past week because we have been seeing so much incredible solidarity from our fellow entertainment unions, also from our fellow non-entertainment unions. Unions across the country understand what we’re going through. And it has been so heartening to see the Teamsters, to see SAG, to see DGA, to see IATSE, our brothers and sisters and siblings there, standing with us and in many cases, not crossing picket lines and slowing down productions at their own risk in order to show true solidarity and to show that they are really, really standing with us, because they see that it is our collective fight that we are fighting, and that we right now, honestly have the privilege to fight that fight, and that we will stand with them as they go to bat for their own contracts and just as they are standing with us.
And so it has been an incredibly, incredibly heartening week. The amount of turnout at all of the pickets has well exceeded what we were anticipating, what we on council in the Writers Guild East, were anticipating at the very least. Double, triple, quadrupled the size that we were anticipating. The energy is high, people are fired up, and we are all angry. So we’re all angry at these corporations, but we also see the humanity in each other. We see that we are in community with each other, and we are so excited, honestly, to be with each other and to fight this fight together. And that is certainly something that the companies do not have. They absolutely are sniping at each other. They absolutely do not have solidarity with each other, and they can’t even really understand what true solidarity is because they’re not like us. They’re not workers.
And so I don’t know what they’re thinking. I don’t know what they’re doing. They certainly have not come back to the table in any way, shape, or form. But I know that we are willing to take on this fight for as long as it takes, and we are going to win. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but we will win.
In light of all the wonderful solidarity we are getting, your wonderful listeners can do a few things to support us. Please shout us out on social media. Please say to Disney, say to all the AMPTP signatories, all the big ones, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, everybody. Tell them how you feel. Tell them that you support us. Tell them that you’re with us. That is actually going to make a big difference.
If you live in New York or LA, please come to a picket. We would love to have you. We are seeing so many people who are not even members of any unions coming out and walking with us just to show their solidarity. We would love to have you on our picket lines. You can also, and so this is a really important one, you can donate. If you have the funds to donate, you can donate to the Entertainment Community Fund. The Entertainment Community Fund is a long existing fund, but we have set up a special fund within it to help anybody who is affected by the strike, who is not a TV and film writer. So all of the production workers who are not working either in solidarity or because their productions have been shut down, they can reach out for assistance from the Entertainment Community Fund, and so we are trying to get as many donations there as possible in order to help these workers.
Because of course, we are all in this together and we don’t want any of our wonderful workers to suffer. We simply want to make the corporations feel the pain. We don’t want our wonderful workers to feel the pain. So yeah, let’s do this. Let’s do this, y’all. Let’s go out there, picket with us, come out there with us or digitally on social media, picket with us and please stand with us, and if you can, donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.
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