Writers Strike 2023: did the WGA vote to authorise a strike – and what might happen across film and TV next?
On Monday 17 April 2023, members of the Writers Guild of America voted in favour of a strike - but what will happen next?
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The Writers’ Guild of America (a labour union that represents screenwriters across film and television) is currently negotiating a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (a trade association that represents film studios, broadcast television networks, and streaming services) to determine how writers are paid.
Shortly before these negotiations began, the WGA published a report titled Writers Are Not Keeping Up, investigating the state of writer compensation in an era of streaming television. The report ultimately concluded that big production companies “have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work”, arguing that 2023 negotiations must significantly address writer compensation.
Between Tuesday 11 April 2023 and Monday 17 April 2023, members participated in an online ballot to authorise a strike. That doesn’t guarantee strike action – rather, it empowers the WGA negotiators to later call one should negotiations necessitate it – but it’s believed that support is widespread within the guild, with many studios and industry insiders treating eventual industrial action as essentially a foregone conclusion.
The eventual result of the ballot showed a 79.79% voter turnout, of which 97.85% members voted in favour of strike authorisation. As a result, the Guild are now in a position to call a strike at any point after Monday 1 May 2023 (which is when the current agreement between the WGA and the AMPTP expires).
Why might the WGA strike?
One of the key issues dominating negotiations – and the likely focus of a strike if an agreement isn’t met – is the question of streaming residuals. Historically, writers have been paid each time something they’re credited with writing is repeated on TV, whether it’s syndicated domestically or sold overseas. In recent years, though, this has been hugely disrupted by streaming services, where the same deals aren’t in place and compensation isn’t at the same level, i.e. a writer who wrote an episode of Friends in 1999 would get much more money from a repeat on Comedy Central compared to someone watching that same episode on Netflix.
As the current three-year contract between the WGA and the AMPTP comes to a close, the WGA are pushing to renegotiate certain clauses before signing the next contract. Streaming residuals were one of the driving factors behind the 07/08 strike, but things have changed considerably since then – after all, at the time of the last strike Netflix was only just beginning to transition from mail-order DVDs to online streaming.
A potential strike in 2023 would seek to raise minimums for streaming residuals, taking into account in particular the opaque way in which streaming services handle their data (consider the above example again: where writers know how many people watch a repeat on Comedy Central, and a residual can be calculated accordingly, Netflix is typically unwilling to share that same information).
Is it all about streaming residuals?
No. The strike is also in response to other big changes brought about by streaming television, namely the rise of something called ‘mini-rooms’ and the fall in average episode order per series. In each case, writers are effectively writing more for less money. If a writer spends a similar amount of time working on a ten-episode show to what they would have spent on a 24-episode show, there’s been a fall in their pay-per-episode. A ‘mini-room’, meanwhile, refers to a small group of writers (rather than the full salaried writers’ room that might have assembled previously) who are hired to break a season before production begins – again representing an underpayment of the writers, who are creating an entire season of television across a short space of time.
Another issue with ‘mini-rooms’ is that it offers working writers less production experience, making it harder for them to take on more responsibility and get better paid writing work in future. Among the responses being considered are minimum salary payments for involvement in these rooms, and/or imposing a minimum staff size relative to the number of episodes ordered.
Currently, there’s something called ‘span protection’ in place, which are a set of minimums that were introduced to maintain a certain level of pay per episode. Since 2017, the fee-per-episode has been set with the understanding that a writer will work for 2.4 weeks per episode, and would then be paid more by the studio if work continued past that timeframe. As part of the WGA negotiations, the hope would be to extend and expand ‘span protection’, meaning that more writers are covered by these protections and the associated earnings cap is raised.
What would be the consequences of a strike?
Effective standstill, at various stages of production. Striking writers would be unavailable to participate in early development of scripts, in on-set dialogue revisions, in later reshoots and rewrites. Schedules for actors, directors, and other key members of production would be thrown into disarray, and a number of series could be delayed indefinitely or cancelled outright.
It’s believed that, given the strike has been on the horizon for some time, some studios will have stockpiled scripts (the Yellowjackets showrunners, who have publicly advocated in favour of a strike, have alluded to something along these lines), though it’s clear that any strike would have a major impact.
One potential consequence being discussed is the role of British screenwriters. Writing culture is, generally speaking, quite different in the UK – writers’ rooms don’t really exist in the same way, and minimums offered by ITV and BBC are typically higher – but the same issues with streaming services exist on each side of the Atlantic.
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is, however, considerably weaker than the WGA, due to laws brought in during the 1980s and 1990s to weaken the unions (most notably, you don’t have to be a WGGB member to write professionally, as you do a WGA member, meaning that the collective bargaining power is minimised).
As a result, and given the increasingly global state of television production, there’s been some suggestion that streaming services might ramp up production in the UK to circumvent the WGA strike – though WGGB members have a solidarity agreement in place with the WGA, there’s a possibility that non-affiliated British writers might cross the picket line.
What was the result of the vote?
A record 78.79% of WGA members participated in the ballot to authorise strike action, of which 97.85% voted in favour (another record). That’s 9020 of eligible respondents supporting strike action, in contrast to only 198 members who voted against. This, again, doesn’t guarantee a strike, but it does empower WGA negotiators to call one on behalf of the Guild if they’re unable to reach satisfactory terms with the AMPTP.
“Our membership has spoken,” said the WGA. “You have expressed your collective strength, solidarity, and the demand for meaningful change in overwhelming numbers. Armed with this demonstration of unity and resolve, we will continue to work at the negotiating table to achieve a fair contract for all writers.”
The AMPTP released their own statement, stating that “a strike authorisation vote has always been part of the WGA’s plan, announced before the parties even exchanged proposals. It’s inevitable ratification should come as no surprise to anyone. Our goal is, and continues to be, to reach a fair and reasonable agreement. An agreement is only possible if the Guild is committed to turning its focus to serious bargaining by engaging in full discussions of the issues with the companies and searching for reasonable compromises.”
What are the key dates going forward?
- Monday 1 May: the current contract between the WGA and the AMPTP ends
- Wednesday 10 May: negotiations between the Directors Guild of America and the AMPTP begin
- Friday 30 June: the Directors Guild and the Screen Actors Guild’s contracts with the AMPTP expire