- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
I first met Alex O’Keefe in late July at a fundraiser for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) in Los Angeles. But I’d been hearing about him for a while. The twenty-nine-year old writer on FX’s The Bear had become a visible face of the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) strike because of his willingness to discuss his own economic precarity.
As O’Keefe told the New Yorker in an article published just before the 11,500 union members went on strike on May 2, O’Keefe had attended the ceremony where he won a WGA Award for Comedy Series “with a negative bank account and a bow tie that he’d bought on credit.” He’d been living in Brooklyn when he wrote the hit show, and his apartment lacked heat — sometimes, he’d plug his space heater in and the power would go out, which led him to write some of the episodes at a public library.
At the TDU fundraiser in July, O’Keefe pledged his support for the Teamsters, who were then facing a possible strike at UPS, as well as the union’s Motion Picture Division, which faces its own contract negotiations next year. He spoke of the Hollywood dream factory as a workplace like any other, where “the assembly line cannot be stopped. People are asked to go faster and faster with less and less pay, all while the overlords watch us and critique our work without any democratic participation from the workers.”
The WGA strike is still ongoing. As it entered month five, I called up O’Keefe to discuss the work stoppage, his years in the climate movement, and his current campaign for a seat on the WGA-West’s Board of Directors. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
“The Union Was the Only Democracy I Found”
A monthslong strike can be a transformative experience to go through, and from speaking on television about your own experiences in the industry to helping forge solidarity across Hollywood’s unions, it seems like it has been for you. What has it been like?
It feels like years squeezed into four months. I remember right before the strike began, I was being driven to the strike-authorization meeting where we would hear the reasons for why we should vote yes to strike. It was at the Sheraton Universal Hotel, and that was my first big WGA meeting. I had already been out of work for a while because there weren’t many jobs; it was kind of a foregone conclusion that the writers were going to go on strike. Heading to that strike-authorization meeting, I was crying.
On the outside looking in, strikes are badass. Before I was in a union, whenever other people would be voting on going on strike, I’d think, “They better go on strike and stick it to those pigs!” But when you are in the seat and you have no money in your bank account — my mom was in the hospital for a heart condition and she didn’t have health insurance — this is not just me voting to stick it to the Hollywood elite. This is me voting to forego my main source of income. And my career was on an upswing because of The Bear’s first season. It was the last thing I wanted to do.
I grew up in Florida, a so-called right-to-work state. I had just gotten my union card the previous year, and it meant so much to me to be protected by a union. I felt like I wasn’t alone in Hollywood, alone in this gigantic sea full of sharks trying to devour me. The union was the only democracy I found.
I remember sitting in the back of that strike-authorization meeting and listening to a lot of fear. People were saying, “If we go on strike, I’ll lose my health insurance.” And I felt what was missing was that emphasis on solidarity. Hollywood has not been a site of solidarity for me. It’s one of the most capitalistic industries, in one of the most capitalistic places I’ve ever been. It’s individualistic; it drives people against each other; everyone’s in competition. All of the toxicity of our system is concentrated in Hollywood and then blasted out across the country.
So I decided to get up at the meeting and stand in line to give a comment. I talked about my experience working on The Bear’s first season as a staff writer. I was not being paid very well. It was the first pandemic winter and I had a space heater sitting underneath my desk to keep me warm — some days when I plugged in the space heater, the power would go out in my house, so to write episode eight of the show, I went to a public library. And I was on Medicaid the whole time. I felt like I had screwed up, that I didn’t understand how the game was played. It was a source of shame and sadness. So, I was speaking from my heart.
I said that there’s a new wave in Hollywood: a new wave of young workers who have stood up against Donald Trump and stood up in 2020. We’re young. We’re changemakers and cycle-breakers. And people at the meeting gave me a standing ovation. I was awestruck. I wasn’t expecting to rally the troops, but I didn’t realize how powerful my story was because I felt so small at that moment. Afterward, so many of the young writers who are on the precipice, these working-class writers who you’ve heard so much from now, they came up to me and said, “You have to share that story.”
I think it gave people a lot of courage to say, you know what, it’s not going to ruin your career if you speak out. Usually in Hollywood, not carrying the line of your boss can ruin you because reputation is a weapon in this industry. Anyone deemed difficult to work with doesn’t get jobs. So I started speaking out because I want to give people the courage to know that you’re not alone, that we can stand in solidarity, and now a culture of solidarity has swept Hollywood in a way I could have only hoped for as a longtime organizer.
We see each other as humans, at least in this moment. Of course, this long into a strike, divisions and fractures and bad vibes can always rear their heads, but this strike is not just about money — it’s about respect. It’s about building a new culture in Hollywood that’s not dog-eat-dog madness, but solidarity and community. Every time you go out on the picket line, that’s what you feel: it’s not a networking party, it’s a community that we’re building. We are the 99 percent against the 1 percent, and if we fight each other, then we’ll lose. Our only weapon in this fight is solidarity. I think Americans across the country are seeing that solidarity is our only weapon against the 1 percent’s rule.
“My Power Is in the Collective”
I totally agree with you about Hollywood being one of the most concentrated, almost cartoonish versions of capitalist culture. Hierarchy, individualism: that’s what the town runs on. You mentioned building the opposite: a culture of solidarity. And it’s certainly true that the Hollywood unions have been working together in a way that is noticeably stronger than in previous strikes. So what does that culture of solidarity look like day to day?
I remember on the second day of the strike, I met a more senior writer who had been the showrunner on a program I loved when I was growing up. We talked for an hour straight and became friends. When we had a rally with the Teamsters outside of a UPS hub, he was there, and he said that when he was listening to the Teamsters and all these different unions, he got goosebumps. He realized, “I’m labor.”
A lot of people in Hollywood saw this work as a white-collar, high-status career. But we’re seeing that the CEOs and their shareholders don’t see a writer from The Bear any differently than they see Chris Smalls from the Amazon Labor Union. We are their enemy. When they said that they’re going to keep this strike going until we start to lose our homes, we realized, oh, we’re just as precarious as anyone else out here in America.
No one really knows what it means for the future of Hollywood, if we’re going to keep this kind of solidarity in our culture, but it’s made an imprint on the minds of all the culture workers of America. Everyone who has written everything from a Marvel movie to a kids’ show has had this experience of, “Wow, my power is in the collective, it’s in my union.” I think that will ultimately change the culture, even if there’s a lot of resistance from the studios.
We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in journalism: there has been a huge wave of journalists organizing unions, and then some of those writers become labor reporters because they’ve gone through the workplace-organizing process themselves and become much more interested in it and less quick to accept an employer’s word.
As for the history of these unions, the Hollywood blacklist is the episode most familiar to people. But blacklisting of labor militants is a through line up to the present in the industry. Now, there has been a scandal of sorts inside the Directors Guild of America (DGA), where there was an effort to vilify some of that union’s more outspoken members. Have you experienced that yourself?
People from the outside looking in might wonder, “What’s going on this year? Why are all of these unions — the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Teamsters, the flight attendants — moving and getting strike ready?’ Well, the history comes from militant rank-and-file reform movements within these unions. These unions were not always democratic. They often concentrated power at the top and created tiered systems. There were effectively civil wars across the labor movement to push these unions to where they are now. Along the way, people like those in and around Labor Notes were pushed out of their unions or out of leadership and blacklisted.
So even though Hollywood has a specific blacklist culture and history, this is not unique to Hollywood unions. We have to understand that these moments of whirlwind in the labor movement come at great sacrifice to the people who push for progress within the union.
“The Bog of Incrementalism”
And on the topic of transformations in unions, you’re now running for a leadership position in the WGA. What’s your experience in the union been, and what’s your vision in running for leadership?
I’m so proud to be a member of the WGA; this is not an easy union to get into, and it’s not an easy union to stay in. You have to work at the highest levels of professional writing, so everyone in the union is a master storyteller. It’s a very intelligent, well-educated group of people, which is an interesting dynamic.
Something like half of the new union members in the last couple years are diverse, new voices, and those folks bring new ideas and new consciousness. The young people of America are impatient for change and do not want to get caught up in the bog of incrementalism, especially those at the bottom of the income bracket.
A strike is a mobilization, and just like the mobilizations of the Trump era, it feels amazing. You feel powerful, solidarity happens, power is won. When I was in the Sunrise Movement, we were a mobilization machine — but the thing that we lacked was deep-rooted community organizing, keeping people activated between mobilizations to build from the grassroots. A lot of unions in America don’t have that tradition — they have committees, and they have some craft trainings and community events, but they really move into action during contract battles. Those are the hot periods. But if we want to build worker power in the long term, we need to be able to maintain heavy engagement and activation within the union between these contract battles, and we need to bargain for the common good, building unions that are around for the community at all times.
I’m really inspired by what United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and its reform movement has done. It won a Green New Deal for public schools a couple of years ago that transformed the ecological conditions and the food in schools. During the Black Lives Matter protests, the union won a black student achievement plan that means I’m able to go to South Los Angeles schools and teach. That’s my idea of what a union can be. It’s not simply every three years fighting for raises, but an organizing entity for the people in an occupation to find a home. I think that’s the next evolution of a union. There are some people who might not agree with me, and that’s fair, but I want to push a vision to build a better Hollywood, and whether I’m on the board or not, that’s what I’m going to do.
Building a better Hollywood is about building healthy workplaces and changing the toxic culture of Hollywood. It’s about defending diversity when they’re trying to purge the people of color within the industry. It’s about growing the movement and training our amazing storytellers to be organizers, and to expand the new organizing. All of that builds our power toward real political shifts to smash the monopolies that own Hollywood.
Bernie Sanders gave a great speech recently about how we need to take on the international media conglomerates. As he said, eight corporations control 90 percent of the media. As long as that’s true, the working class is not going to have the megaphone to make real, lasting change. So all of the nitty-gritty, internal politics of a union amounts to expanding the canvas in which artists can paint so that we’re not just making the regurgitation of intellectual property and more toy movies where you can get a McDonald’s Happy Meal that ties into a script I’m writing. Instead, we’re writing stuff that comes from the soul, comes from observations, comes from American life.
I’m very proud of the first season of The Bear that I was so lucky to work on, because it emanated from a lot of the things that were going on in the world, like conversations about what’s a toxic workplace. Nobody thinks that stuff’s marketable when you write it, but if you can smuggle it out of this dream factory, if you can get it on the other side of the machines, then it will resonate and it can become a major hit if it’s written well enough. That’s the overall vision of why we need to change Hollywood, because if not, we won’t get independence or freedom in our art, and in fact, our art will most likely be taken over by machines and artificial intelligence.
You’ve mentioned CalCare as a program you want to prioritize in the union. Can you explain what that is and what relevance it has for WGA members?
WGA has great health insurance, if you can qualify for it. But it’s not always easy to qualify for it, and also, every three years, we have to negotiate for our health insurance. Lots of people are losing their health insurance because they haven’t been working this year. As long as we tie our health insurance to employment, it gives our employers a carrot to dangle over us: if we walk away from the table together and have a long-term strike, we can lose our health insurance, and if something major happens to us, we’d be unprotected, even though we are professional writers and we’re in the union.
We have to untie health insurance and health from your job. You shouldn’t have to work on two television shows a year or work on a movie a year — which when you think about it, is like saying you’re going to have to go to the moon every year — to keep your health insurance. Getting these jobs is about talent and tenacity, but it’s also about luck. And our health should not be tied to luck.
CalCare is an attempt to create a universal health care system in California, because it’s such a large economy and such a large population that we can take it on. This has been part of the California Democratic Party platform for years: California Democrats say that they are pro-CalCare, but they have not actually put it into motion or started to build that universal health care system in California. Because California’s economy orbits around Hollywood in particular, I’ve worked to help get some of my fellow board candidates to pledge to fight for CalCare.
I think every union in California needs to work together to pass comprehensive health care that is just as good as the health care that we get through our union. If we can remove that from the bargaining table, we can bargain for more.
“The Movement’s Job Is to Plant Seeds”
You were a part of social movements before you started working in the entertainment industry, though not the union movement. You volunteered on Barack Obama’s second presidential campaign in Florida, where you’re from, and you’ve also worked as a speechwriter for Elizabeth Warren and on the Green New Deal; you were a staffer for the Sunrise Movement. How do you see that background affecting your organizing now as a union member?
There’s so much pessimism and defeatism among people who got involved in the Sunrise Movement, or Democratic Socialists of America, or the Bernie campaign. A lot of times, we think that if movements did not win in the short term, they were failures. We forget that the movement’s job is to plant seeds, and not necessarily to reap the harvest. I didn’t come out of nowhere; I’m reaping the harvest of the rank-and-file organizers of the Teamsters, or of UAW, or UTLA. I’m just given a louder voice because of my proximity to something as big as The Bear.
I want young people to understand that this struggle is not over. Our movements were surveilled, our movements were attacked and harassed by the right wing, and our movements were coopted by the establishment. There was a point in the Sunrise Movement when we were having retreats at Martha’s Vineyard and John Kerry showed up in a turtleneck to pitch our collaboration with Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan. That’s what cooptation looks like. When it’s happening, people can be excited to be close to power, and they don’t realize that there are vile forces in this world trying to defeat us. And they often defeat us, and it sucks. They have so much more money and resources. But we have to pull ourselves back up. We owe it to our ancestors and we owe it to the generations beyond us to fight in this existential moment, for labor and for humanity.
The WGA strike won’t end in the liberation of us all. It will hopefully end in massive raises and a better quality of life for working writers in America, but what happens next is not determined by me. It’s determined by the people reading this. It’s determined by the people who go into their community every single day and talk to their neighbors and break through beyond the alienation, or beyond the escapism that my industry produces.
Our most powerful weapon as organizers, revolutionaries, and activists is heart-to-heart conversations. We need to really speak to the soul of the nation, not just with cold theory, but with the warm soul and the militant optimism that still exists in people if you’re willing to reach out and grab someone’s hand and pull them back up into the light.
Alex, is there anything else you wanted to talk about that hasn’t come up yet?
I think we need to speak about the future beyond the strike, because if we only speak about this moment, the energy will dissipate. The only way we’re going to win lasting change is by organizing the working class into one great unit that can launch strike waves that hit at industry points and shift the laws of this country. I don’t hear that coming from people in the labor movement, and I understand, because it’s perceived as radical, but I think it’s necessary.
I come from the climate movement, and everyone says the Green New Deal was too radical to be done. But it’s too necessary not to do these things. It’s radical because we’ve let all the incremental things that we could have done pass us by years ago. Now, we have one choice left, and this is not coming from me, it’s coming from the United Nations. If you read its reports on the climate crisis, what is the only solution? To stop the economy of infinite growth. As long as we have that economy, we are choking ourselves to death. We are going to have more wildfires, more pollution, more cancer, more pandemics. I know that sounds pessimistic, but it is just as possible for us to build another world. Our world was built by people, and a better world can be built by us. But we have to start to see our labor as the theory of change.
If we apply our labor toward building a new world, that new world would be built overnight. We have millions and millions of people who devote their time every day toward making profit for a few people at the top. If we devoted that same level of intentionality, of organization, of coordination, toward saving our species and living more full lives and improving the state of humanity, we would do it. But it takes the consciousness that it’s possible. We cannot accept fearmongering and doomerism. We have to move in militant optimism toward workers across America rising up in unison to strike back against the 1 percent.
If you’ll let me push you on this, how would strike waves help create that vision you’re laying out?
Strikes do a few things. One, they show the working class who are the protagonists in the story of our lives: we are the protagonists, not Elon Musk, not the celebrities. The protagonist of world history is regular people whose names you’ll never know, and when you see regular people harness their power to shut down a corporation, it can awaken a person’s consciousness.
The other thing is that I worked in Washington, DC. I worked directly with senators, and I know they know that they can’t do anything to change the underlying conditions of America. Whatever your pet issue is — gun violence, climate change, income inequality — they know, and we know they know, that they don’t actually have the power. What politicians have become in this country are characters in a TV show you watch on MSNBC. Nothing fundamentally changes through our political system because it’s been so bought up and corrupted by capitalism.
So I think we have to exercise a new lever of power that is not centralized in Obama, or Bernie, or any great hero. It’s decentralized. Every worker sees the tool that they have, their trade, as part and parcel of building a better world. If we want to address the problems of our communities, we need the people who live in the communities determining the future of those communities. If we always give our real democratic power over our lives to the ruling class, they will never give in. They will give concessions, but they will never fundamentally transform the living conditions. And they certainly are not going to abolish the fossil fuel state in time to save ourselves.
I can’t tell you this is what’s going to work, but the only lever of power I can see that could effect change on a mass level at this speed is by shifting our labor away from working for the 1 percent toward working for the people. It also gives you practice for living in that kind of world. Look at this strike, for example — and again, I’m not saying this WGA endorses this ideology — I’m not working on a TV show, so what am I doing instead? I’m talking to Jacobin magazine. I’m preaching to the people on CNN. I’m fundraising for mutual aid and teaching kids in South Los Angeles. I’m applying my skills toward a better world rather than simply making more money for a giant media conglomerate. By which I mean, because I have time during this strike, I’m applying my labor in an alternative way that’s centered on humanity, not on profit. A strike gives you the chance to prefigure that better world. And again, I’m not a labor leader; I’m just a guy who worked on The Bear and that’s why people want to talk to me. None of my words are law, and I hope that it’s easier than what I’m saying. Because what I’m saying would be very difficult to organize.