WGA & SAG-AFTRA  – A Pro-Union Breakdown

For more than a hundred days, the ever-moving Hollywood machine has been stuck, brought to a standstill by its own devices. Finally, we’re seeing progress, as well as a renewed vigor with which the cogs turn. 

A huge fraction of the writers behind America’s entertainment industry just recently returned to work after having been on strike since May 2nd. The strike lasted 148 days total, making it the second longest labor stoppage WGA has ever organized. On July 2nd, their on-screen coworkers joined them and are still going strong in what is currently SAG-AFTRA’s longest strike yet. Consequently, the filming and production of beloved series such as Stranger Things, Abbott Elementary, and Yellowjackets has been delayed up to a year, and we’ve missed out on live streaming* staples such as The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

As a result of newfound attention brought to the filmmaking process by the controversy, Hollywood is facing unprecedented pressure from its employees and audience to examine the treatment of its workforce. For a long time, the entertainment industry has been a difficult field to work in. Condition management and awareness have often fallen by the wayside by virtue of of this idea that ‘making it’ in Hollywood is a dream-come-true for creatives, who, in a world where the ‘starving artist’ stereotype is prevalent, should simply be grateful for opportunity in an increasingly competitive industry. One investigation into artists’ income states, “People believe that artists are selflessly dedicated to art, that price does not reflect quality, and that the arts are free.” This is a core underlying belief, held by the industry itself and by consumers all over the world, that perpetuates the intense demand entertainment workers feel and disproportionate compensation they receive. 

The emergence of ChatGBT and other artificial intelligence technologies is a point of contention among many of these creatives, and extenuated the already worsening circumstances of the industry for many. AI has been experimented with by major production studios to write scripts, imitate actors’ likenesses and voices, and do much of the heavy lifting in animation and VFX. Because such a reductionist outlook on creativity is common among production studios, the weighty ethical implications of AI use is not of great concern; using AI is simply a fast, easy way to make money, and has endless possibilities in terms of revolutionizing filmmaking processes. In some cases however, it takes humans fully out of the equation. 

According to Alexandria Rubalcaba, a background actor on Marvel’s WandaVision, she and other minor actors were scanned onset without being told what their likeness would be used for. This raises a major concern: the potential of production giants dodging the responsibility to employ and pay background actors in favor of AI. They could use AI-generated versions of actors without compensation, consent, or even their subject’s prior knowledge. Additionally, most of Hollywood’s major studios are considering giving AI a permanent seat in their writers’ rooms – one source says that since the strikes, companies have drawn up plans to replace up to 80% of human writers with AI. The final 20% of remaining writers would be mainly responsible for cleaning and finishing AI work. 

That the task of distilling the most fundamentally human voices and stories would fall upon robots is a jarring concept to think about.

In the face of the AI debate, ongoing payment disputes, increasingly exacting work hours, and an expiring Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) on the writers’ part, both WGA and SAG-AFTRA began negotiating with the AMPTP in early 2023. Both unions were unsatisfied after the designated time, so both made the decision to strike. 

Before we move further, here are brief summaries of the organizations according to their websites: 

Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP): The AMPTP is the entertainment industry’s official collective bargaining representative, responsible for negotiating industry-wide guild and union contracts on behalf of film and television producers. 

Writer’s Guild of America (WGA): As the alliance of two unions, WGA East and WGA South, WGA collectively represents 16,000 TV, film, broadcast, and news media writers. 

Screen Actors’ Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (SAG-AFTRA): SAG-AFTRA represents ~160,000 actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals; works to secure the strongest protections for media artists into the 21st century and beyond.

The main concerns of these strikes are, in no particular order:

The strikes have had a huge effect on Hollywood and TV media; more than 73 programs shut down as a result of the huge reduction in workforce, and countless movie releases have been delayed. Over 45,000 jobs have been lost, and the strikes have cost California’s economy an estimated $6.5 billion in revenue. 

Despite producers’ confident refusal to back down throughout the months of the strikes, even the most stubborn industries would flounder after stagnancy for half a year. WGA reached a tentative agreement with the AMPTP on September 24th, 2023 after five months of tireless picketing and advocacy. The WGA and AMPTP reached a final agreement on September 27th, 2023 and the writers’ strike officially ended. 

It can be safely supported that the WGA won their strike; on the agreement, the WGA’s official statement is as follows: “We can say, with great pride, that this deal is exceptional — with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every sector of the membership.” The MOA (memorandum of agreement) (I know, more acronyms!) included guidelines that raised minimum wage for writers, set solid guarantees for health insurance and pension, and helped re-outline guidelines for term lengths and minimum writing team sizes. Perhaps most notably, the strike was successful in its two primary areas of concern: residual pay for writers and protection against current and developing artificial intelligence technologies. The verbiage regarding AI specifically prohibits producers and media companies from replacing human writers with AI or lowering their pay as a result of its use/existence. The MOA specifies that writers should be permitted to use AI such as ChatGBT if previously agreed upon by all parties, “... but the company can’t require the writer to use AI software when performing writing services.”

The MOA was ratified on October 9th with 99% approval from voting members of the WGA – the number speaks for itself. 

President Joe Biden says of WGA’s victory: “There simply is no substitute for employers and employees coming together to negotiate in good faith toward an agreement that makes a business stronger and secures the pay, benefits, and dignity that workers deserve. I urge all employers to remember that all workers – including writers, actors and autoworkers – deserve a fair share of the value their labor helped create.”

SAG-AFTRA issued the following statement on WGA’s happy conclusion: “SAG-AFTRA congratulates the WGA on reaching a tentative agreement with the AMPTP after 146 days of incredible strength, resiliency, and solidarity on the picket lines. While we look forward to reviewing the WGA and AMPTP’s tentative agreement, we remain committed to achieving the necessary terms for our members.” 

The actors’ strike is not yet resolved.

Immediately after the WGA strike’s conclusion on the 27th, SAG-AFTRA announced that it was still on strike and called for renewed negotiations; that same day, AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA released a joint statement revealing that negotiations would resume October 2nd. These negotiations lasted until October 14th until they were called off. The union is, as of October 26th, still on strike.  

Until the SAG-AFTRA is able to reach a favorable agreement with AMPTP, Hollywood’s actors will remain on strike. However, union members, workers’ rights advocates, and followers of the saga are hopeful for a positive outcome. As proven by the WGA, workers’ voices are loudest when raised in protest together; progress is possible, with a little patience.