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Writers picket in front of Disney in California in 2007 Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

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What you need to know about the looming WGA strike

Writers are voting on whether they’d be willing to strike if a new contract isn’t solidified by May 1

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

When nearly 12,000 movie and TV writers in the Writers Guild of America went on strike in November 2007, entertainment production screeched to a halt. The American labor union, which represents entertainment writers, handles negotiations between those writers and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the trade group representing TV and movie producers, like Disney, Netflix, and Paramount — every three years. Most years, the WGA and AMPTP reach agreements after a standard negotiation and contract bargaining period. But WGA members have gone on strike six times: in 1960, 1973, 1981, 1985, 1988, and, most recently, in 2007. The WGA might have to strike again on May 1, and although the 2007 strike happened 16 years ago, it’s the best example we have as to how this potential strike could go.

The 2007 strike was centered on several issues to be addressed in the contract agreement — issues around streaming media compensation and DVD residuals, among other things. The economic impact of the strike was huge. Beyond the writers who were withholding their labor to fight for better working conditions and compensation, studios with halted projects ended up firing production workers, too. No one wants a strike — it’s not easy on anyone, to put it mildly — but it’s the last resort, as well as a show of solidarity between writers, when an agreeable contract isn’t on the table.

In early April of this year, the WGA made its first step toward its seventh writers strike when it announced it would hold a strike authorization vote — a move that lets union members vote on whether they’re willing to strike. This vote only authorizes a strike as a possibility; if the unionized writers believe they’re being offered a fair contract, they won’t have to resort to a strike. The WGA contract with production studios and streaming companies runs out on May 1, which is when the strike would begin if a contract hasn’t been agreed upon and signed by then. This time, WGA’s writers are looking for a higher pay floor, pay standardization and residuals for entertainment released on streaming or in theaters, and to “address the abuses of mini-rooms,” which are basically small writers rooms that offer less stability, among other demands.

What does this mean for the people who write all your favorite shows and movies? We’ll explain.

Two writers on strike in front of the NBC office. Photo: John Malmin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Who is part of the Writers Guild of America?

The WGA’s membership consists of writers spanning across the TV and movie industry. The American labor union has been around in an official capacity since the 1930s to represent its writers in negotiations with production studios. Unions in Hollywood work a bit differently than unions in other industries, like the video game industry; union writers for TV and movies can work with a number of different production studios and on several different projects, whereas video game industry unions typically cover a single studio. There are different unions for different sectors of movie and TV production — directors, camera operators and other crew, actors, writers, and others have their own unions that negotiate with the AMPTP.

So the Writers Guild represents a ton of movie, television, and documentary writers. Most of your favorite shows and movies are written by union writers: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Everything Everywhere All at Once, Star Trek: Picard, The Walking Dead, Detective Pikachu, Abbott Elementary, Better Call Saul, and plenty, plenty more — too many to name, really.

[Ed. note: Polygon is represented by the Writers Guild of America, East, but has its own contract entirely separate from movie and TV writers.]

What’s a strike authorization vote?

On April 3, WGA leadership asked its members to take a strike authorization vote. Basically, the union wants to know if its writers are willing to strike if a contract isn’t negotiated by the time the old one lapses. Voting on the authorization will start on April 11 and continue until April 17. Should the writers vote in favor, they’ll go on strike on May 1 if a new agreement isn’t reached.

Negotiations have been ongoing with the AMPTP since March 20, and WGA representatives told the Los Angeles Times that the AMPTP hasn’t brought good enough offers to the table just yet. The strike is a way to show solidarity between writers, as well as a show of power for the union. The threat of a strike adds an element of leverage to the negotiations, telling Hollywood studios that these workers are ready to withhold labor if they must.

Writers Guild Holds Picket And Rally Outside ABC Studios In New York Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

When will the strike happen? How long would it last?

Well, a strike may not happen. The ideal scenario is that the AMPTP will bring an offer to the table that satisfies the WGA’s demands, and a strike won’t be necessary. But if that fails, and the writers vote yes, a strike would go into effect on May 1. There’s no set end date for a strike — it ends when an agreement that’s suitable to both parties has been reached.

The last WGA strike in 2007 lasted 100 days. The strike in 1988 ended after 153 days. A video game actor strike in 2016 (between the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Arts and 11 American developers and publishers) lasted for nearly a year, ending after 340 days.

The impact of a strike is hard on the people striking and others working in production, but that makes it a powerful tool. It’s a sacrifice that workers are willing to make to ensure a better and more equitable future. As of March 27, the WGA West has a $20 million strike fund to support its writers in case of a work stoppage and lapsed pay and benefits, Deadline reported.

What are they fighting for?

The WGA released its broad demands on its website earlier this year; members approved them in March. The union has grouped these demands into three categories: compensation and residuals, pension plan and health fund, and professional standards and protection in the employment of writers.

Specifically regarding pay and compensation, the union calls out the devaluation of writing across TV, movies, and other media; it’s asking for an increase in minimum pay to address that. It’s also asking for pay and residuals to be standardized between streaming and theatrical releases and to ensure TV writers are paid throughout production, too. A WGA report from mid-March suggested that writers have been disadvantaged as production companies “[leverage] the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work.” After adjusting for inflation, the WGA estimates that “median weekly writer-producer pay” has declined by 23%.

“The companies have used the transition to streaming to cut writer pay and separate writing from production, worsening working conditions for series writers at all levels,” the WGA wrote. “On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season. And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.”

The other big issue is “mini rooms,” which Variety described as a scaled-down writers room. A traditional writers room is roughly eight writers, Variety’s report explained, while a mini room enlists two or three writers to help a showrunner write a few scripts at lower rates, regardless of their experience level. Using this type of small-scale writers room keeps costs down while the platform decides if it wants to greenlight a show, or — in the event that a full season has aired — to determine if the show should be renewed. With mini rooms becoming more prominent, pay has decreased due to the lower-scale rates involved. It’s particularly bad for newer writers, Variety said.

The full list of WGA’s pattern of demands is available on the WGA website.

Tina Fey on the WGAE picket line with Seth Myers in 2007. Photo: Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

What does this mean for shows and movies?

We can guess the impact of the looming strike based on the 2007 one, which went on for 100 days. The impact wasn’t immediately seen in shows and movies that had finished production; those went on as planned. But after the strike began, scripted shows got shut down, and production workers were laid off. Some shows ended up with shortened seasons, like 30 Rock, Gossip Girl, Supernatural, Scrubs, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Breaking Bad, and dozens more. Others were delayed, while reruns played in their place until after the strike, though still within the same season — Hannah Montana, 24, and Battlestar Galactica fell into that category. Some shows were postponed as production stopped, and episodes were aired in the following season. Others were simply canceled outright, even with several episodes already written and shot.

Movies were impacted, too. Some production companies rushed to complete scripts before the looming strike. Ryan Reynolds famously spoke about the impact of the strike on X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which proceeded with filming despite the lack of writers to finalize the script.

“We were in the middle of production, there were no writers, no anything,” Reynolds said. “Every line I have in the movie I just wrote myself because in the script we had, it said, ‘Wade Wilson shows up, talks really fast.’ I was like, ‘What?! What am I supposed to do with that?’” (The movie was critically panned upon release, and Reynolds has made reference to its disastrous plot in his own solo Deadpool movies.)

The 2009 Star Trek movie also shot through the 2007 strike, which meant its script couldn’t be changed without violating terms. The script had been set before the strike with writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who could be on set, they said in an interview, because they were also executive producers. But they couldn’t change anything, except “make funny eyes and faces at the actors whenever they had a problem with the line and sort of nod when they had something better.”

If a strike were to happen in May, it could look similar; the LA Times reported earlier this year that studios have already started prepping scripts and even renewed series earlier than expected, but there’s only so much writing that can be banked ahead of time. We can expect that scripted productions would stop immediately, impacting all genres. Movies have more generous timelines, but like last time, there would be an impact there, too. Reality TV saw an uptick amid the last strike, with some shows getting longer seasons. It’s possible that will happen this time around, too, should the strike go forward.

In 2007, writers entered into other creative spaces when they weren’t writing for shows. The internet — and internet-based content — has only grown since then, and plenty of writers already have made inroads in that space, which would potentially ease their transition as individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately provided a roadmap for what to do when productions are shut down, and some creators are certainly more comfortable on the internet than in 2007 because of that.

Picketers from the Writers Guild of America protest the return of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” outside of NBC studios in Burbank, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2008. Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Has public support changed?

Writers definitely had support from the public during the 2007 strike, but support for unionization has grown exponentially since then. The past few years have put unions in headlines nationally as workers fight for their place at the bargaining table across industries. We’re seeing progress in industries that unions had barely touched (or hadn’t touched at all!) previously, like the video game, tech, and retail service industries. It’s a nationwide trend, with union elections up by 53% in 2022. Overall, though, union membership has been in decline for decades, which one expert suggests may be due to the “enormous barrier” of U.S. labor laws that keeps people from unionizing workplaces.

Still, it’s clear that the environment in which the strike would operate has changed. There may be less talk of TV and film fans being “inconvenienced by the strike” and more support for the writers and other impacted workers involved.