Hollywood writers are joining the fight for stable jobs

The TV & entertainment writers’ strike is only one example of organized labor attempting to lift the working class out of the trenches of the so-called gig economy

May 16, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
WGA writers picket outside of Paramount Studios in Los Angeles (Photo via the Writers Guild of America)

TV and film writers have been on a historic strike in the US since May 2. Writers’ pickets have generated support from various prominent unions in the entertainment industry and outside of it, such as the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and the Teamsters. Celebrities have supported both verbally and monetarily, including Susan Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Jimmy Fallon, Mindy Kaling.

The Writer’s Guild of America is trying to drag the writing profession out of the clutches of the gig economy by fighting for stability, better pay, and regulations on AI use. The alliance of big studios, AMPTP, has rejected these core demands despite the multi-billion dollar profits they’ve been able to rake in off the labor of writers.

The rise of streaming platforms and the accompanying shrinking of broadcast television has been accompanied by a loss of job security and stability for writers. When asked why writers were striking, Jazz Peck, WGA member and producer based in Los Angeles, told Peoples Dispatch that studios have diminished the roles of writers in the process of production, turning “what should be a stable and rewarding position into a sort of a more freelance gig economy thing.” She added, “they’ve increasingly shortened the spans of employment and made it more difficult for new writers to enter the industry.”

Writers have historically received residuals from broadcast shows, meaning that writers would get compensation each time shows were rerun. In the past, “you would get residuals for your episode once it aired on TV,” said Peck. “And those checks would be enough to sustain a writer, for example, who is in retirement, or in between jobs, to cover the rest of the span of that unemployed time.” However, big studios have insisted that residuals do not apply in the case of streaming, and are only paying writers their initial compensation. If streaming shows become a massive success or are resold by studios, writers do not receive a penny more

“[A writer] who used to get enough to pay a mortgage payment now gets a couple hundred bucks,” said Peck.

WGA is fighting hard for streaming residuals, arguing that studios have more than enough money to pay up.

The advent of streaming has also shortened the length of time that writers are employed. “Typically a writer’s room in the past would last like 20, 24 weeks. In that span of time you would get paid a weekly rate or an episodic rate for your time based on how many episodes that the show’s doing,” said Peck. “And then you’d be able to energize that over the course of the year. Like, one job a year should be enough to get you through a full year.”

Today, employment is more precarious. As Peck told Peoples Dispatch, “Increasingly, studios have been asking writers to do work in much shorter spans of time.”

“I was asked to do a one week mini room for a project on shows that take months to put together,” she said.

The WGA is also fighting for minimum durations of employment. Studios have refused to even provide a counteroffer to this demand.

Studios are not the only employers trying to earn a quick buck off of making their workers’ jobs more insecure. The “precariat” is a growing fraction of the global working class that are losing the workplace benefits that labor fought hard for in the 19th and 20th centuries, including job security, healthcare, pensions, and fair compensation. 

Job stability has been decimated in the US

Under capitalism, workers have always lived precariously to some extent, suffering workplace accidents, being arbitrarily dismissed from work, or having wages stolen. But globally and in the US, the labor movement built a relatively stable “middle” class over the course of the 19th and early and mid 20th century through winning key victories such as job security and benefits. 

But as union density has shrunk over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries as a result of an anti-labor offensive by capitalists, those protections have been slowly stripped away. Since 1973, wages have stagnated in relation to productivity. The so-called “middle class” has been decimated as middle income earners have seen wages barely increase since 1979, while high-wage earners have had wages increase by 41% since then.

All of this has contributed to the growth of the “precariat,” as employers exploit workers’ growing desperation to funnel them into jobs with virtually no security. “Gig” work is characterized by freelance or “independent” work, in which the most available job options are ones in which workers are forced into “contractor” status, working without benefits on a purely as-needed basis. This sector of the job market has exploded: from 2005 to 2015, 94% of net employment growth was in so-called “alternative work arrangements.” 

Gig work is often promoted as being providing more “freedom” or “flexibility” than a “traditional” job, but a plurality of gig workers engage in such work primarily out of necessity according to a 2022 survey. At the same time, the percentage of people using independent work simply as a way to add discretionary income has been halved since 2016. According to the same survey, a majority (54%) of gig workers are concerned about the stability of their employment, versus 35% of permanent workers. More independent versus permanent workers report barriers to health and well-being. 62% of independent workers want to work permanent jobs instead. 

The WGA is not the only sector of organized labor seeking to reverse the gigification of the US workforce. UPS Teamsters are battling it out with the company to reduce the precarity of part-time workers, some of whom make barely above minimum wage and are shifted into schedules that allow for little more than five hours of sleep. Rutgers University workers went on strike in April and won fairer compensation and better job security for adjunct professors, essentially the gig workers of academia. Delivery workers in New York City are involved in a struggle for a higher wages, as are New York City Taxi drivers. Uber and Lyft drivers are fighting for better wages, safe working conditions, and an end to unjust terminations.