Writers’ strikes not beneficial to everyone
by Charlie Glennie
October 5, 2023
With the Writers Guild of America strike coming to a close and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists’ strike nearing its end, it would seem like things can go back to normal in the entertainment world.
But this is actually not the case for many employees in the film industry.
If you weren’t a writer or actor, the strike meant you were without a job, no guarantee of getting it back, and certainly no added money or benefits if you did.
This is because many will remain unemployed or receive no benefits from the deal between the studios and WGA.
Joey Merehoff, a mic-boom operator in Atlanta, lost his job when just the threat of the strike started.
“It’s affected me very much; it's definitely taken a toll on my mental health,” he said, noting that production teams saw the writing on the wall and started winding down production early. “So I was already out of work even before the strike started.”
Throughout the past year, Merehoff has been able to pick up a couple of side gigs and small part-time jobs requiring sound operators. But this still doesn’t make up for the amount of income he has lost from the strike.
Why the strike?
The strikes revolved around the fear of growing streaming and AI services that could potentially take over many writing and acting jobs, as well as the lack of inflation-adjusted pay from the unions wanting a more significant price of the pie.
Approximately 11,500 WGA writers who work for Hollywood shows and movies announced on May 2 that they would walk off the job.
The SAG-AFTRA voted to conduct their own strike on July 13, joining the picket line and resulting in Hollywood’s first double strike in 63 years.
During the 146-day writers’ strike, around 17,000 people in the film industry were left without jobs and were put in financial distress. With no income, many in the industry resorted to side-hustling jobs.
Kevin Klowden, chief global strategist at the Milken Institute, told Yahoo! Finance that the coinciding strikes could cost the national economy more than $5 billion thanks to the impact on businesses besides show production. This includes the financial loss to restaurants, catering companies, trucking agencies, dry-cleaning businesses, and more.
But even as WGA and SAG negotiations enabled their members to receive certain benefits, such as an increase in pay and limitations on the use of AI, the same will not apply to anyone besides actors and writers who work in the film industry.
And for that reason, many film professionals who work in different departments not covered by the WGA and SAG found it hard to support the strike.
David, a seasoned executive producer based in Hollywood who does not want his full name to be used, believes profits to studios and executives in the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are excessive, and an adjustment was needed.
But he also thinks the historic requests from the two unions have caused controversy within the industry.
David did not believe the WGA strike was a good thing entirely.
“Solidarity is too strong a word, but I try and see both sides of the discussion,” David said, adding that the issue could have been solved with more transparency sooner. “It was just that everyone was keyed up and had an unnecessarily pugilistic attitude towards it.”
Rick Castro, a production accountant for Marvel Films, didn’t support strike because of the impact it had on so many workers.
Castro is part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which includes over 170,000 production crew members.
“When you put an entire industry out of work, you could possibly have people losing their homes, losing their insurance,” Castro said. “I find it really hard to jump on board with something like that.”
Thinking about the bigger picture, Castro found it hard to sign off on the prolonged strike when so many were affected negatively.
“I’m a little more on the conservative side of things,” Castro said. “I believe that everyone has the right to work. With all these people, like production assistants and people getting started in the business, when they start missing two or three paychecks, it becomes a dire situation.”
Castro also has a hard time supporting the people in the strike who already make a lot of money compared to thousands of other workers.
“I think they do very well in their salary, and with the studios making tons of money, it’s only fair that they get their slice of the pie,” Castro said, adding he is not in full support of the WGA and SAG strike because there are so many others within the film industry outside these two unions who are at risk with no beneficial outcome.
The IATSE labor union - which represents technicians, artisans, and craftspersons in the entertainment industry, including motion pictures and television production in the United States and Canada - is a large union that has been negatively affected by the strike.
Rip Russell, a production controller who is also part of the IATSE, agreed with Castro’s point of view.
“I won’t get anything out of it,” he said of the strike deal. “It affects everyone, and not everyone will be getting the benefits in this outcome regardless of whatever deals are made.”
Russell added that there may potentially be another strike for the IATSE in the next two years after its contract with the studios ends. He said unfair hours, possible inflation, and internal disagreements could make conditions ripe for a strike.
“If demands aren’t met, there will be a high climate for a strike,” he said.
Russell said more attention should be paid to unions and workers beyond just the writers and actors.
He and many others will not receive any residual benefits from the forced unemployment they were dealt with, and they also have demands and goals of their own.
Although the General Executive Board of the IATSE unanimously approved $2 million to be distributed through industry-recognized charities to support IATSE members in need during the ongoing Writers Strike, it still was not enough.
People still rely on second jobs like working for Uber or serving at diners, applying to Target, and some even had to leave the industry entirely.
David pointed out that it will most likely take more than a year for workers within the industry to really get back to their regular work schedule - which is too long for people to be out of work.
“In anticipation of the strike, nobody was green-lighting anything," he said. "Then there was the strike period, and now there’s going to be the period of time that takes to start the industry back up.”