Hollywood Screenwriters Have Always Known That Moviemaking Is a Form of Labor

The Hollywood screenwriters' strike has deep historical roots: stretching back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, writers and many others in the industry have insisted that filmmaking is a form of labor — and fought for their rights as workers.

Prominent writers Billy Wilder and Gore Vidal (right and second from right) join a writers’ picket line at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, June 25, 1981. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is on strike. The union representing about 11,500 writers of film, television, radio, and online media announced a walkout as their last three-year contract expired on May 1, explaining that “the survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.”

At the center of the dispute are deteriorating working conditions stemming from the rise of streaming services and the boom in made-for-television production. The union’s proposal, sent to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, includes both traditional demands like higher minimum wages and unique claims concerning “viewership-based streaming residuals” and the regulation of artificial intelligence usage.

In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Alex O’Keefe, who worked on the hit FX show The Bear, complained, “I thought we would be treated more like collaborators on a product. It’s like an assembly line now.” Similarly, Stephanie McFarlane, a writer for BET+, told the New York Times that she just wants her “income to be a livable wage,” since “right now, it’s like a gig economy.”

Such statements have a long history in the film industry. Thinking of themselves as workers, screenwriters, actors, directors, and many others in the film industry stretching back to Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1930s and ’40s have insisted that filmmaking is a form of labor and resisted attempts to categorize it just as entertainment or art. Screenwriter Philip Dunne, who worked for 20th Century Fox, argued that no matter how “glorified” his work was, the movie writer is an “employee, subject to the directions, and in some cases the apparent lunacies, of the studio executives.” Joan Crawford thought that Hollywood actors “have jobs the same as any girl in a ten-cent store, and we do what we’re told.” James Cagney suggested that he was “just like a shipping clerk. I was just a salaried employee.”

Hollywood workers felt entitled to fair labor standards and the protections guaranteed by US labor law. And they fought for those rights. In fact, the first battle waged by Hollywood scribes was for their right to form a union.

At the height of the New Deal, screenwriters, actors, and directors, like millions of other US workers, joined the ranks of organized labor. While actors and directors adopted a more conservative, craft-focused unionism, they nonetheless raised their own standards. And writers proved to be comparatively militant, quicker to strike to defend and expand their rights on the job.

That kind of worker consciousness was as crucial then as it is now. Despite attempts to focus on the glitz and glamor of their industry, time and again Hollywood workers have been compelled to turn the attention back to the sphere of production and labor rights.

Unionizing in an Anti-Union City

Hollywood and worker struggles have been intertwined from the very beginning.

In the 1910s, the film industry relocated from the East Coast to the Los Angeles area in large part because of the city’s reputation as the United States’ premier nonunion city. A coalition of bankers and employers, including Los Angeles Times publisher General Harrison Gray Otis, had turned the city into what scholar Mike Davis later called “a paradise of the open shop.” Owners of motion-picture companies found this anti-labor atmosphere immensely appealing.

Movies were getting longer and more expensive, and the production process required many skilled craft-workers, such as carpenters, electricians, tailors, and painters. Weak unions and a steady supply of new residents in search of work meant that salaries in Los Angeles were a fifth to a third below the prevailing rates in San Francisco, and in some cases half the wage levels of New York.

Some unions did manage to infiltrate the studio lots. The East Coast origin of most studio heads, as well as their loose ties with the interests of the more traditional downtown Los Angeles businesses, made labor organizers hopeful about their chances.

First among them was the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Established in New York in 1893, the union represented a combination of crafts closely tied to the building trades, as well as the motion-picture machine operators, property men, and grips. In 1908, IATSE opened its first local in Los Angeles and soon found itself locked in jurisdiction battles with two of the city’s long-standing trade unions.

Nevertheless, IATSE and other American Federation of Labor–affiliated locals, including musicians, managed to form a united front and, in 1926, they forced the Motion Picture Producers Association to sign the first Studio Basic Agreement, which recognized most unions, granted the eight-hour workday, standardized overtime payments, and formed a committee to settle labor disputes.

The struggles of the back lot soon found an echo among the creative ranks. In 1919, film and theater players set up the Actors’ Equity Association and, a year later, the first Screen Writers Guild was established. While both failed to draw many members, producers were still spooked about the potential of these creative guilds. So in early 1927, just a few months after signing its first agreement with IATSE, a group of industry captains led by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer put together a company union of sorts called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Yes, the organization that today dispenses the Oscars was originally a company union.)

When the Great Depression hit, the major studios used their company union to impose a sweeping across-the-board pay cut. As the Screen Guild’s Magazine reported at the time, writers, actors, and directors were left feeling that “the Academy was the medium through which wholesale theft was committed under the guise of necessity and parliamentary processes.”

Meanwhile, IATSE, an independent union, resisted any pay reduction for its members. Inspired by the example of this worker-run union, a group of writers reorganized the old Screen Writers Guild (SWG). They immediately signed up 173 charter members. Three months later, in July 1933, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) was formed, and the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) was founded in 1936.

Unions Conservative and Militant

Studio bosses tried to nip the new organizing in the bud. Whenever it was asked to recognize a new union, the Producers Association insisted that the workers in question, be they directors, cinematographers, or script clerks, were not employees under the definition of the law and, therefore, were not entitled to the associated rights. They consistently questioned the authority of the federal government to determine whether a group of distinctive craft-workers could be considered a separate bargaining unit and resented the New Deal for meddling in the labor-management relationship.

Interestingly, the creative employees of Hollywood initially displayed a somewhat similar attitude. SAG, for example, empowered itself by taking advantage of a back-lot dispute. On April 1937, after failing to win recognition from the producers, the guild joined forces with a new craft union called the Federation of Motion Picture Crafts (FMPC). SAG announced it was going to join an FMPC walkout, only to renege on its promise once producers agreed to negotiate with the guild if it called off the strike. As the Los Angeles Times reported, this agreement threw a “stumbling block in the path of striking studio craftsmen.”

Directors played a similar craft-oriented game. From the get-go, SDG declared that it would have no affiliation or working agreement with any other talent or craft organization. Unimpressed by the show of conservatism, the studios still refused to recognize the guild until it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and threatened to strike. Even then, unit managers — formative members of SDG — were left out of the bargain and forced to form their own union. For directors, organized labor was a mere safety net: they preferred a peaceful, narrow agreement, catering mostly to the artistic aspirations of a select few.

The talent group that came closest to a traditional proletariat was the writers. The screenwriters lacked the personal cachet of high-profile directors and box office stars. And in terms of brute leverage, they simply were not as threatening. After all, as an economic analysis of collective bargaining in the industry explained, “a strike of actors immediately halts all photography; a strike of writers does so only after the backlog of previously prepared screen plays has been exhausted.”

The producers fought SWG ferociously. They rebuked their writers in meetings, handed them guild resignations slips, threatened to blacklist SWG members, and even helped form a sweetheart union. Still, emboldened by the NLRB, SWG persisted. After two separate appeals to the NLRB, SWG finally won recognition in 1939. The writers singed their first studio contract on May 1940 and included an 80 percent guild shop.

From Dissension to Unity

Despite their craft exclusiveness, the Hollywood guilds won significant gains. By the early 1940s, all three of them had inked lasting contracts with the big studios, achieving higher wages, arbitration of disputes, and, most importantly, an extensive guild shop that covered between 90 and 100 percent of studio employment.

These victories are even more impressive in hindsight. In his book Stayin’ Alive, Jefferson Cowie writes that by the late 1970s, “the rate of successful organizing efforts had fallen from about 80 percent in the first ten years of the Wagner Act to 61 percent in the 1950s to only 46 percent by 1977.” A Pew Center study published this year reports that the share of US workers who belong to a union has fallen from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.1 percent in 2022.

Yet in Hollywood, the triumphs of the New Deal era lasted through the 1970s and beyond. SAG, SDG, SWG, and IATSE remain powerful organizations today. With slightly moderated structures and names, WGA, Directors Guild of America (DGA), and SAG-AFTRA strengthened their hold and represent a labor force that now extends to other industries such as radio, television, and digital media.

The current moment has the potential to unite the film workers’ ranks even further. DGA started its contract talks with the producers’ association (currently the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP) on May 10; SAG-AFTRA will follow on June 7, and IATSE next year. In a stark departure from the past, all of these unions are displaying a united front. As Lindsay Daugherty, head of IATSE’s Teamsters Local 399 said in the WGA strike meeting, “they’re starving all of us out, not just you guys. So, whatever they pay you guys now, they’re going to pay all of us later, with interest. . . . We have to fight. We have to keep fighting together.”

Producers will try to divide and conquer. They are already focusing their efforts on reaching an agreement with DGA, whose only strike lasted for three hours and five minutes in 1987. The chances of a general Hollywood walkout are probably slim.

But if the creative guilds and the craft union can stick together, they are likely to find out that even against AI, the most effective protection is organized labor.