Adam Conover didn’t realize just how precarious a position television writers were in until he was, technically, their boss. It was 2020, and the stand-up comedian had just sold The G Word, his second television show, to Netflix. Conover was a writer and member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West union, but he was also one of the show’s executive producers. One day, as the production staff discussed the writing calendar for the limited series and how many writers they planned to hire, one producer mentioned a benefit that came with partnering with the streaming giant.
“He says, ‘Hey, good news: because we’re on Netflix, we can do whatever we want with writers: there’s no minimum compensation and there’s no minimum term of employment — we could hire and fire them by the day if we wanted,’” Conover told me. “He was talking about how great this was, and other executive producers were like, ‘That’s wonderful for us!’ But my blood ran cold, because I didn’t realize how poor writers’ terms were for the type of comedy I do — specifically, it was a comedy/variety show, which has abysmal terms in streaming. We actually have no terms whatsoever, we have no minimums of any sort.”
In its counterproposal to the WGA during negotiations for a new three-year contract, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) wants to permanently lock in that lack of minimums for comedy/variety writers. Under the terms sought by the studios, writing for shows like The G Word would be done on a day rate, turning television writing into a true gig job with zero security, something a comedian does between stand-up sets.
For Conover, the conversation was jarring. (He laughs before noting that The G Word’s most well-known executive producers, Barack and Michelle Obama, were not in the room during the conversation.) He learned a basic reality from the discussion: flexibility for producers meant precarity for writers.
Conover hadn’t yet been a WGA member during the previous strike in 2007, but the comedian knew that it was only because of that work stoppage that streaming services were covered by the union contract work at all. Yet the conversation with his fellow producers made it clear that there was a long way to go. His first television show, Adam Ruins Everything, had aired on truTV, a small channel on basic cable, but the residuals from that project had kept him afloat. There was no such safety net at Netflix.
“Going back even before the 2007 strike, the only reason residuals exist is because SAG-AFTRA [the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] and the WGA went on strike in 1960, and the same is true of our health and pension plan,” says Conover. “Being in that situation, where I’m making a show for Barack fucking Obama on the biggest platform in the world and they could pay me $1 a day and hire and fire by the day if they wanted to — and not only that, but I’m asking writers from my old show to join me on the new one with terms that are much worse? All of that made it obvious that right now is our turn to go on strike to win gains for ourselves but also for the writers of the future.”
Conover is one of the most recognizable faces of the current twelve-thousand-member strong WGA strike. He is a negotiating committee member and serves on the WGA West board of directors, and since the strike began on May 2, Conover has been inescapable to anyone following the action.
On social media, he posts a constant stream of videos, many of them filmed while walking a picket line, explaining everything: the purpose of the AMPTP, which the WGA is bargaining against (“to figure out new ways to pay their workers less”); what a strike captain does (checks strikers in for a shift on the picket line, ensures gates are covered to keep productions shut down); and what the strike is about in the first place (“the survival of film and television writing as a sustainable career”).
Writers Strike explainer: What is the AMPTP, and what’s their purpose? #WGAStrong
On the strike’s first day, it was Conover who criticized the $250 million salary of Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav during an interview on CNN, which is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery (“Because you ruin everything, you may have just ruined my career, but I don’t mind,” joked CNN anchor Sara Sidner as she ended the interview.)
Went on CNN to explain why writers are striking, ended up roasting their bosses' salary. pic.twitter.com/Si4HHDVuM8
— Adam Conover (@adamconover) May 2, 2023
A few days later, Conover was there when WGA West members shut down an active Marvel production with the help of members of the Teamsters and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) members, an approach the union has gone on to use with remarkable success.
“We’d been tipped off about the shoot and the Teamsters were being cooperative and didn’t cross the picket line, so we ruined the shoot for the day,” says Conover of shutting down the Marvel production. “That picket led to us building an entire system: putting a team together, collecting call sheets, and figuring out where to go.”
Join us on the picket line! #WGAStrong
Conover is quick not to attribute the union’s success in shutting down productions to writers, emphasizing that shutdowns are only possible because members of other unions have been willing to sacrifice on behalf of their fellow workers. That wasn’t a given: during the 2007 strike, the Hollywood labor movement was less unified, and many productions continued rolling.
“We have the utmost respect for the fact that people are making a sacrifice to make it happen: we have people coming to us saying, ‘Put up a picket line, we’re not going to cross it and we’re going to help you,’” he says.
IATSE members nearly struck the AMPTP in 2021, and the union has seen an influx of organizing by the rank and file, particularly younger members, who are fed up with their own unsustainable working conditions. The Teamsters, too, have undergone a change in leadership with the election of Sean O’Brien. In Los Angeles, Lindsay Dougherty, director of the Teamsters’ Motion Picture Division and president of Local 399, which represents around 6,500 industry workers, has been a stalwart ally of the WGA during the strike.
“The AMPTP has declared war on Hollywood labor, and I promise you, it is a war they are going to get,” said Dougherty at a June 21 WGA rally at the La Brea Tar Pits, near WGA West headquarters.
“[AMPTP president Carol Lombardini] didn’t plan on our picket lines being joined by workers from every union in town,” Conover told the crowd in June. “We have walked with janitors, with housekeepers, with teachers, with strippers, and that is because we know that we are all in it together and we’re all fighting the same fight: for a sustainable job in the face of corporate greed.”
Honored to speak at the WGA Strong rally last week where THOUSANDS of writers and fellow union members marched in a show of strength and solidarity #WGAStrong
Watching him speak from the stage, it’s clear that the process has transformed Conover. He was already comfortable in front of the camera — a stand-up comic and SAG-AFTRA member. And he isn’t new to local politics, having supported Nithya Raman, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member, for Los Angeles City Council in his district. (Conover says that he isn’t one for “-isms,” adding, “I like to think that I’m in common cause with DSA, for instance, but I don’t go to their meetings.”)
But taking on a public role in a nationwide strike is something else entirely. Conover calls it “an area of personal growth.”
“People are looking to me for leadership, and I’m actually able to deliver it in a way that feels comfortable and that they appreciate,” he says, but not before noting that that there are many other leaders in the union doing important work behind the scenes: Raphael Bob-Waksberg, for instance, another member of the WGA West board of directors (and the creator of BoJack Horseman), who spends hours a day poring over a spreadsheet to direct other board members to picket lines across Los Angeles; or Ellen Stutzman, the WGA’s chief negotiator.
As for Conover, he’s busy. The day we spoke, his morning had begun with picketing outside of Netflix at 9:00 a.m. — he estimates that he spends around three hours a day picketing. A WGA West board meeting was scheduled after.
“It’s very hectic,” he says. Plus, Conover is currently on a stand-up tour, performing at shows that were booked before the strike began. While his stand-up material isn’t about the strike, he says that at meet and greets after each stop of the tour, people constantly bring up the strike, wishing him and his fellow writers luck.
Being so closely associated with the strike is undoubtedly made easier by the near-universal agreement among writers that this contract marks an inflection point, with the future of their ability to survive in the industry at stake.
“I’m very cognizant that I’m playing this role under extremely favorable conditions because the guild is so united,” says Conover. “It would be a lot less comfortable to do it if it was during an action that there was internal dissent about or if the public perception weren’t so positive. I’m doing it all with tailwinds.”
The WGA has had moments of internal dissension in its recent past. In 2019, the union took on the Association of Talent Agencies (ATA) over packaging fees and relationships with studios that the writers said amounted to conflicts of interest: writers hired agents to represent them, but their representatives were being paid by the bosses. The campaign, which involved writers firing their agents, proved successful, building the foundation for the union to confidently wage its current strike. But it was originally controversial among the membership.
Conover had become a full WGA member in 2016, and he supported the agency campaign. His desire to see it through led him to become more active in the union. Some members of the guild were loudly opposed to the campaign, and the union held hours-long meetings about it in ballrooms at union hotels in Los Angeles. Any member could approach the microphone and argue the case.
“I thought, ‘The people on stage are making a good case, but I think I can make an even better one —if I just sit next to the microphone, I can be one of the first to speak and I can talk to five hundred people in this meeting,’” remembers Conover. He went to three meetings across the city, repeating his case to fellow members.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is fucking democracy,’” says Conover. “I started to see the parallels between that and national democracy in a really direct way. The face-to-face conversation is the atomic unit of politics, and the guild is nothing but ten thousand face-to-face conversations every day.”
Not long after the campaign ended in victory, a friend who was a former labor organizer and had written for one of Conover’s shows nominated him for the WGA West board. Comedy/variety writers, with some of the weakest protections of any television category, were underrepresented in union leadership; Conover felt it was a reason to step up. He asked outgoing WGA West president David A. Goodman for support and received his endorsement. In 2022, Conover was elected to the board. It was less than a year before the contract expired.
What’s at Stake
Conover is a public-transit advocate: despite living in Los Angeles, he doesn’t own a car. When I ask how he gets to out-of-the-way picket lines around the city, he rattles off a list of routes: the bus to the Netflix line, or the Red Line to Universal CityWalk. Sometimes, he tags along with his girlfriend, a fellow WGA member who does drive. Rarely does he make it to picket lines on the west side of the city.
“Our west-side board members will say, ‘We need more people at Amazon’ or whatever, but the young people live on the east side because they can’t afford to live on the west side,” explains Conover. “That means lots of the young people go to Netflix (though Netflix has a lot of symbolic power too — I pitched at the Netflix building and had a premiere screening there). You can see the change in the guild’s economic conditions based on who’s able to go to which pickets.”
If there are no other options to get to a picket line, Conover will resort to a ride-sharing app. On the third week of the strike, he called an Uber. He was wearing a WGA shirt, and the driver asked if he was going to the picket. Conover said yes, thinking that the worker was just asking as an interested Los Angeles resident following the strike. But the driver responded that he usually goes to the Netflix picket line himself; he was a fellow WGA member.
“There’s a lot of talk about how, because the situation has been so bad for so many years, striking is less of a sacrifice than it used to be, because people know that if they don’t do this, it’s just going to get worse,” says Conover. “People feel that they would be giving up more by not going on strike. But at the same time, to be picked up by a member who told me that he was driving Uber to make ends meet and to keep his kids in school? People are making sacrifices.”
Now, the WGA strike is in its third month, and few expect it to end anytime soon.
“Our cochairs [Chris Keyser and David A. Goodman] have said from the beginning that the goal is to break the AMPTP’s structures so that we negotiate with the CEOs,” says Conover. Currently, the unions sit across the table from AMPTP president Carol Lombardini. The organization functions as a cartel that takes on the work of negotiations, leaving studio heads free of the need to face their employees, with plenty of time to party in Cannes. The WGA is the most strike-prone of the Hollywood unions, and by all accounts, Lombardini prepared the studios for a writers’ strike.
The pattern bargaining in which Hollywood’s unions engage meant that in this round of negotiations, the WGA negotiated with the AMPTP first, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) followed, and then SAG-AFTRA, bargaining last with the studios. The writers’ contract expired May 1, and once the strike began, no future bargaining dates were put on the calendar as the studios moved on to negotiating with directors. DGA members ratified a deal on June 23, a move in line with recent historical precedent.
Next up was SAG-AFTRA. But negotiations with the actors have strayed from Lombardini’s timeline. The once-unfathomable is now possible: across the industry, production schedules are shifting in anticipation of the possibility that SAG-AFTRA, too, may strike when its contract extension expires on July 12.
Writers and actors haven’t been on strike at the same time since 1960, the year they won residuals. Ronald Reagan was SAG-AFTRA’s president at the time. Until this summer, the actors’ union hadn’t even held a strike-authorization vote over its master TV/theatricals contract since 1986. But pushed by member concerns over residuals, their health and pension plan, and artificial intelligence (AI), the 170,000-strong union held such a vote last month, and members returned 97.91 percent of ballots in favor of authorizing leaders to call a strike should negotiations reach an impasse. A June 27 letter urging SAG-AFTRA leadership to “join the WGA on the picket lines” if the union can’t win a “transformative deal” increased the pressure — signatories include Kevin Bacon, Quinta Brunson, Glenn Close, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lawrence, Bob Odenkirk, Mark Ruffalo, and Meryl Streep. SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher, too, signed the letter shortly after it was released.
“Members are telling SAG-AFTRA leadership loudly and clearly that you can’t make a living in this industry as an actor anymore,” says Conover, who is also a member of the actors’ union. “The companies have shifted massive costs and burdens onto the workforce: look at self-taping, which is free work run amok. And although I think that the proposals that the WGA put forward about AI are necessary against abuse, AI is currently much more able to undermine the working conditions of actors than writers, so that’s another pressing issue.”
When I ask him to make a prediction as to whether actors will join him and his fellow writers on strike come the morning of Thursday, July 13, Conover demurs.
“If the actors take a deal, I think it’ll be a big, good deal,” says Conover. “But if SAG-AFTRA goes on strike, we’re through the looking glass and anything is possible. That’s an event horizon past which I can see nothing.”