Writers Guild of America Strike: not just about pay, but human creativity

Damian Algabre

Summary: A report on the US 2023 Writers’ Strike, the demands of the Writers’ Guild of America, and the obstacles they face.

On May 2nd, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), representing over 11000 TV and film writers in Athe US, went on strike. This date is significant because, aside from being one day after May/Labor Day, this is the day after their Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) expired. The MBA established particular requirements which contractors/employers were obligated to meet for union writers, but the MBA has become increasingly obsolete since the WGA’s last strike in 2007-2008. While the WGA last met with Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers (AMPTP), the studio coalition that signs the deal with WGA, in 2020 to renew this agreement, the urgency of the pandemic prevented any real negotiations from taking place. [1]

During the 07-08 strike, the television industry’s solution to the loss of writers was a sharp rise in reality TV—a format that required little, if any, writer involvement. And while this tactic is being used again today[2], broadcast television is a much smaller segment of the industry affected by the strike this time around. Although the WGA’s 2007-2008 strike made historic inroads in securing WGA writers’ employment in “new media” (which includes streaming services) among more conventional wins surrounding pay, the once new media of 2008 are now well-established and mundane. With this shift in the entertainment landscape has also come a shift in control; the preeminence of streaming services in the realm of entertainment media have garnered these services a great amount of control over not just what gets made, but how it is made.


Of course, fair payment on projects, especially in residuals when it comes to streaming services, are part of the demands in the WGA’s strike. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Unlike traditional network television, where networks may have only a few big titles that enjoy long runs and dedicated viewers, streaming services rely on a large variety of shows to draw in viewers and keep their business—these shows are much shorter than the traditional network show and often are shut down without proper conclusions. (Shorter shows, of course, mean shorter periods of secured work and more precarious living conditions for writers.) Drawing from industry writer Matt Belloni’s insights, this ‘breadth not depth’ approach to providing content is just the consumer’s perspective of a leaned-down production process made to produce more options in lesser time.

For example, Belloni describes the rise of “mini-rooms”. In contrast to conventional TV writing, in which “a large writers room that would sit for months at a time and crank out dozens of episodes of shows”, a “mini-room” is where “a couple of writers get together before a show goes into production and they crank out what the beats of the show are going to be.[3] Then it gets turned over to an experienced producer that finishes the show, and that leaves the writers out of the equation, and they don’t like that”. Belloni also points out that aside from this mini-room format being more economical, it usually leans toward established names and thus leave out staff writers and junior writers/producers who rely on the conventional writing hierarchy to gain experience and a viable career in television/movie writing.

Perhaps one of the most contentious topics of the strike is the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in entertainment production. (WGA is notably the first labor organization to demand safeguards against AI.) Adam Conover, a WGA negotiating committee member, puts AI into perspective as a working writer: ” You can easily see the job becoming polishing AI scripts. It fits neatly into what companies have been doing — turning everything they can into gig work…. AI can’t and won’t replace us. But the fantasy of the technology will be used to devalue us, to pay us less.”[4] Veteran show writer Sera Gamble wrote a Twitter thread describing the on-site work that writers do—work that extends beyond writing. She essentially argues that as part of the crew, they are the most intimately familiar with the script, and thus are indispensable for last-minute rewrites when filming/logistical issues arise, aiding in direction, answering questions from other crew members, and otherwise preventing costly scene reshoots.[5] Although not directly, Gamble gives an argument for everything writers do in and during a production that AI text generators simply can’t; as a writer, she exists as a troubleshooter deeply knowledgeable in both the fantasy of the story and the reality of production. Writers are a bastion of story knowledge when utilitarian scripts and notes are not enough to render written word into intentional videography. Without writer ownership of the script, it is easy to see the on-set aspect of the writing job being changed into a more supervisory role.

Nevertheless, although AI text generators, now that they are openly available, will undeniably be integrated into the television and film (among other) creative industries regardless of union efforts, defining the terms under which AI can and should be used must remain one of the highest priorities for industry writers. AI like Chat GPT are significant in this strike not only because of the harm they stand to do to WGA, a group of workers who have already faced increasing precarity in the last two decades, but because of the harm they do to creativity involved in the writing process and because AI functionality relies on the theft of countless preexisting works without giving their creators due recognition or remuneration. Already, industry shifts like “mini-rooms” and shortened series lengths have lessened writer involvement and collaboration on any one project. The induction of AI into creative fields will introduce countless, faceless writers into the writers’ room—writers responding to different social locations and points of history, hidden in the black box of AI, who no longer have a say in how their words are being manipulated or what message is being spelled out through their labor. As Ron Currie, a striking writer expresses, “A strike is not a fight at all, but rather a collective assertion of our dignity. It’s not about money — except insofar as, in America, money equals respect.”[6] If defending writers’ dignity truly is the throughline of the strike, the use of AI as an industry standard can only be ethical if it is used as a tool owned by the writers (especially including the writers that AI draw from) and made for writers—as the strike and as the pressures of the entertainment industry show, however, AI finds its most natural use as a means to undercut the very creatives that make these shows possible.

The WGA has already set a strong precedent for striking in Hollywood—SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors’ Guild, voted in favor of strike authorization (97.9% voting in favor of authorization) on June 6th, 2023. On the same date, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) accepted a deal with AMPTP. Both SAG’s support and DGA’s independent dealings with AMPTP hearken back to moves made during the 07-08 writers’ strike, DGA’s deal back then ultimately realizing AMPTP’s plan to divide and conquer the unions. However, it seems that WGA is determined to continue the current strike regardless of SAG or DGA.[7] I talked with a leftist, non-union actor about the WGA strike, and he was able to share his perspective along with the sentiments of those in similar positions. On the ground, many non-union actors have given grudging support to the WGA strike and have even showed up to picket. Although many actors are concerned over the lack of work opportunities due to the strike, there is a common enough sentiment among non-union actors that this is a momentous strike with high stakes that, in the long run, they can only stand to gain a better working environment from.

The WGA strike is certainly one to pay attention to, as its implications are just as significant as blue-collar strikes in the previous couple of years. Since the 2007-2008 strike, the WGA have been fighting for dignity and a secure living as rapidly changing technology have fundamentally altered the shape of the film and television industry.

[1] https://www.theringer.com/2023/5/30/23741672/how-hollywood-wga-writers-strike-could-change-the-future-of-tv-and-movies

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/reehines/2023/05/17/reality-tv-to-the-rescue-amid-writers-strike-abc-and-fox-lean-on-unscripted-shows/

[3] https://www.theringer.com/2023/5/30/23741672/how-hollywood-wga-writers-strike-could-change-the-future-of-tv-and-movies

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20230504040017/https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/writers-strike-ai-chatgpt-1235478681.

[5] https://twitter.com/serathegamble/status/1654968707087736832

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/01/opinion/wga-hollywood-writers-strike-unions.html

[7] https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/wga-vows-continue-strike-regardless-001700454.html


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