On August 11, day 102 of the 11,500-person Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, which has largely shut down the film industry coast to coast, aided by below-the-line workers respecting picket lines and bolstered by 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), who initiated their own strike on July 14, the studios finally returned to the bargaining table.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the organization that bargains on behalf of the major studios, offered counterproposals, a long-awaited response to the WGA’s proposals. The two sides met the following week and continued to exchange proposals.
Then, on August 22, day 113 of the WGA strike, the two sides met again, but with an important addition: previous negotiating sessions had been led by AMPTP president Carol Lombardini, the studios’ hired hand, while at this one, the bosses who make the decisions were in the room.
Disney CEO Bob Iger, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, and NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley came to the table to face the WGA’s elected leadership in the room outside of the AMPTP’s Sherman Oaks, California, headquarters where the negotiations have taken place. Workers, suffering the devastating effects of a months-long strike, hoped that the studios might finally offer counterproposals that meet their needs. Instead, the bargaining session led to further unraveling.
“We accepted [the] invitation and, in good faith, met tonight, in hopes that the companies were serious about getting the industry back to work,” wrote the WGA negotiating committee in a message to members following the meeting. “Instead, on the 113th day of the strike — and while SAG-AFTRA is walking the picket lines by our side — we were met with a lecture about how good their single and only counteroffer was.”
The two sides had agreed to adhere to a media blackout, vowing not to leak information about the proposals to third parties. Yet immediately following the August 22 session, the AMPTP publicly released a document highlighting elements of their counterproposal.
“This was a meeting to get us to cave,” said the WGA leadership, “which is why, not twenty minutes after we left the meeting, the AMPTP released its summary of their proposals.”
The move is an attempt to go over the heads of the unions’ elected leaders, a ploy to create pressure among the membership that might lead them to cave to proposals that are weaker than the demands they’ve steeled themselves to win. It also may be a violation of US labor law, which prohibits going around union leadership to appeal directly to membership as a violation of the duty to bargain in good faith. A sign of desperation in the face of a union membership that remains remarkably unified despite the immense sacrifices they continue to make, the AMPTP’s strategy of turning writers against one another is unlikely to succeed.
As for the substance of the studios’ counterproposal, there is some movement on the bosses’ part, but based on the details released by the AMPTP, many of which mirror the deal ratified by the Directors Guild of America, their offer still falls short of what film and television writers need.
On wages, the AMPTP touts its offer of a compounded 13 percent raise over the life of the three-year contract — 5 percent in year one, 4 percent in year two, and 3.5 percent in year three — as “the highest wage increase for the WGA in 35 years.” But the writers have seen their wages fall an average of 23 percent over the past decade, and before the AMPTP walked away from the table in May, the WGA had proposed an 11 percent increase in the first year of the contract.
Plus, the writers are on strike in a moment when other workers are winning major pay bumps: United Parcel Service (UPS) workers just won a contract that raises some workers’ pay by 55 percent over their five-year contract; United Auto Workers (UAW) members at the Big Three automakers are pushing for a 46 percent raise over the life of their new four-year contract.
Another core issue for the WGA is the size of writers’ rooms on television shows, as well as the duration of employment. Streaming video on demand (SVOD), which has come to dominate the industry as linear broadcast and network television loses market share, tends to have fewer episodes per season, with shorter contracts for writers who are pushed to pump out television quickly. Streaming has favored the use of “mini-rooms,” which leave overworked showrunners responsible for pulling together a full season of television, assisted only by writers on unpredictable short-term contracts.
The writers want guaranteed thirteen-week minimum contracts and rooms with at least six writers. In response, the AMPTP is offering ten weeks and a commitment to “allowing the Showrunner to select at least two mid-level writers to be assigned to production who are each guaranteed at least 20 weeks of employment (unless the production period is shorter).” The AMPTP touts this as “a new structure to train writers to become the showrunners of tomorrow.”
Lack of such training for newer writers is a serious problem; writers need to be kept on contract through the production period if they hope to learn how to run their own show. But “allowing” showrunners to hire two writers for that period is not much of a solution. The definition of “showrunner” is in constant flux; one can imagine an executive producer being named a showrunner, then declining to make use of his allowance to hire writers. One can also imagine producers pressuring a showrunner to save money on the budget by declining to keep two additional writers on contract during the production period. Guaranteed longer contracts without loopholes are the only way to ensure the issue is rectified.
Another major priority for the WGA is the matter of data transparency: writers want access to the numbers concerning how many people watch their shows, and for that data to be used for a new residual that would reward workers for successful production, much as residuals did in linear television. Members see the issue as nonnegotiable: in linear television, residuals can be a significant proportion of their income, and the meager residuals they receive from streaming are a massive economic concession that they are determined to claw back.
The AMPTP is offering that “viewership data in the form of quarterly confidential reports is to be provided to the WGA that will include total SVOD view hours per title.” But according to the WGA leadership, that data would only be for WGA staff’s eyes, and could not be shared with writers who want to know how many people are watching their shows. And the data was always a means to an end, not the end in itself. The actual goal is a new residual, and the studios’ data, in the AMPTP’s own words, will only “enable the WGA to develop proposals to restructure the current SVOD residual regime in the future.” It kicks the can down the road three years from now, rather than resolving it now, when the writers have built a unified, mobilized membership, in an economic climate that puts the wind at their backs.
“We explained all the ways in which their counter’s limitations and loopholes and omissions failed to sufficiently protect writers from the existential threats that caused us to strike in the first place,” wrote the WGA negotiating committee in their letter to members following the August 22 meeting. “We told them that a strike has a price, and that price is an answer to all — and not just some — of the problems they have created in the business.”
“During the meeting with the CEOs,” wrote the WGA leadership yesterday in a longer statement on the negotiations, “we spent two hours explaining that, though progress had been made, the language of the AMPTP’s offer was, as is typical of that body, a version of giving with one hand and taking back with the other.”
The studios, given their violation of the media blackout following the bargaining session, do not seem interested in hearing such feedback. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports that the AMPTP had originally planned to release their counterproposal last Friday “but held off in the hopes that the WGA would take their proposal to the membership to vote on.”
If that’s the case, the executives have yet again proven themselves to be clueless: there was never a chance that WGA leaders were going to accept an early-stage counterproposal from the AMPTP that has so many remaining issues. Even after more than one hundred days of a nationwide strike, the studio heads are still monumentally out of touch.
Here’s the reality about which the bosses are apparently still in denial: the writers are resolute about their priorities and they sent their leaders to the bargaining table to win those demands. The strike won’t end until the studios accept reality as it is, not as they wish it were.